Should We Ban Office Romance?

Posted in : HR Updates on 16 October 2013
Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting
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Angela Schettino writes:

Should we discourage Office Romance?

Amongst some of the trickier issues we deal with in HR, is the question about how to deal with rumours about romance blossoming between two of your employees who happen to work in the same location, as well as the more unfortunate incidents which can occur when individuals are discovered in, shall we say,’ inappropriate physical displays of affection’ either at work or at a social function. The most famous of cases is that involving a certain President Clinton.

  • A survey of 7,700 workers from dating website illicit (People Management, 2012) found that: “Nearly 40% of staff admitted to having a relationship with a colleague at some point in their career. 38% of survey respondents said they had dated a colleague and 17% admitted they had done it more than twice”.

Survey after survey confirms that a high proportion of romances begin in the office, many of which result in marriage (or the break up of one!). Given the proportion of relationships that do seem to occur at work, it seems rather unrealistic to attempt to discourage or ban people altogether.

In our experience, however, most small to medium employers are yet to introduce any formal policy or guideline in this area. There are some valid considerations to developing guidelines, such as the risk of a claim of sexual harassment or discrimination by an employee, for which the employer may find themselves vicariously liable if they have failed to take appropriate steps to protect their employees. There is also the risk of breaches of confidentiality (pillow talk) as well as conflicts of interest among other things.

'No Romance' Clauses

In the U.S. it is not uncommon for employers to issue a blanket ban on office romances by including a ‘no romance clause’ in the employment contract. Given the widely understood right to privacy under the Human Rights Act 1988 this is not an approach commonly used or encouraged in the UK and Ireland. In addition, we tend to think that office romance is almost part of what makes the workplace a little bit special over here, within certain acceptable limits of course.

Code of 'Romantic' Conduct

There are two options available to employers’, the first is to ensure that reference is made to acceptable conduct in policies which already exist on dignity at work, bullying and harassment, misconduct and use of company electronic email and mobile phones. The second option is to produce a separate Code of Conduct outlining the approach to workplace romance, written and communicated separately.

A well-written, widely distributed Code of Conduct on office romance will not prevent office romances from developing, but can make things much more straightforward to handle and less litigious when one comes to light.

We recommend that the code of conduct should reflect the organisational culture and where possible be positive, including clear and fair guidelines on office romances.

The code should clearly state what is considered unacceptable behaviour or misconduct in the office.

For example:

  • Inappropriate physical contact (contact which crosses the line of professional behaviour).
  • Inappropriate use of language (language which is sexualised or potentially offensive to others).
  • Personal use of company communications systems (use of email or other forms of messaging which is inappropriate and personal in nature).
  • Limitations on manager and subordinate relationships and guidance on declaring relationships.

The company should identify any risks such as harassment, confidentiality breaches, conflict of interest or supervisory issues before implementing a Code of Conduct and relative procedure.

The Code may prohibit those in a relationship who work closely together from interviewing, managing or promoting each other.

The Code should provide guidance on conduct, so that any breach would be a misconduct issue rather than a breach of contract.

Remind employees of the company policy on harassment and provide sexual harassment training for managers or all employees if possible.

Relationships Between Managers and thier Subordinates

Companies may include a clause in senior employees’ employment contracts prohibiting them from having a relationship with subordinate employees within their own teams, departments or locations.

If a relationship does develop between a manager and subordinate, the company should get involved and manage the situation through effective communication, this sometimes may result in no action being taken if the relationship is not causing any concern or risk, however it may also be valid to consider whether either individual should move to a separate team at the next career move opportunity.

If the Company decides to transfer an employee it has to have an objective reason for choosing to move one employee and not the other. If the Company simply chooses the junior or female employee, this could result in a claim for sex or age discrimination. This is also true for moving couples in same sex relationships without valid reason, raising obvious concerns about discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Performance and Conduct

If a workplace romance is causing distraction or affecting employee’s performance, the employer should be involved and a proper procedure should be followed to deal with performance issues.

If two employees are involved in the same inappropriate conduct then ensure a proper disciplinary procedure is followed and that they are treated the same, as inconsistent treatment could lead to discriminations claims.

If there is sexual banter and gossip about two employees involved in a relationship, the employer should formally remind employees of the dignity at work policy and the policies with regard to bullying and harassment.

Break Ups

When co-workers in a relationship break up, this can cause behavioural issues at work. As in all issues of conflict, good line management involves early informal resolution between parties and agreement about appropriate professional conduct. It may be necessary to move the employees for a cooling-off period, but it is important to look at each situation on its merit. Any moves should ideally have equal impact on both parties and be based on legitimate reasons.

This article is correct at 04/11/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting

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