An office romance

GIVEN the amount of time that colleagues spend together in the practice, it is perhaps not surprising that personal relationships at work can develop.

While most employers will be fine with two colleagues having a relationship, practices should consider putting in place a policy on relationships at work to help ensure there is no negative impact on their work or on the practice.

The policy should strike a balance between employees’ right to a private life and the employer’s right to protect the business.

As part of the policy, the couple should be encouraged to inform the principal or staff partner of the relationship. The policy should also define what is deemed as ‘inappropriate conduct’ in the workplace, such as forbidding intimate behaviour like kissing, touching or holding hands during work.

Another aspect to consider is ensuring any workplace communication remains professional and couples are not using their work emails or any other form of internal communication to send inappropriate messages to each other.

The case Barbulescu v Romania clarified an employers’ right to monitor the contents of private emails.

The messages that Mr Barbulescu’s employers read were from an account that had been set up specifically to deal with client enquiries - the policy clearly stated that the account was not for personal use. The employee was advised that he had broken company rules and was dismissed. Mr Barbulescu argued that the dismissal was unlawful due to his right to privacy and breached his human rights.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that: “it is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

This does not mean that there is no right to privacy within email correspondence – the employer’s actions still have to be reasonable and proportionate, and there has to at least be a reasonable expectation of privacy in the circumstances. There must also be a clear business need for any monitoring.

Another potential area of concern involves the sharing of confidential information outside of the workplace. For example, a senior employee divulging information to their partner regarding a matter related to another member of staff. Employees engaged in a relationship need to be advised that any breach of confidential matters may result in disciplinary action being invoked.

As with any practice policy, rules pertaining to workplace relationships need to be applied consistently to all members of staff, including partners and principals. Enforcing a blanket ban on relationships at work or trying to control an employee’s activities outside of work are likely to be in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Employees should be advised that a professional working relationship needs to be maintained if the relationship does not last.

Practices need to ensure they have appropriate sex discrimination and sex harassment policies in place as disciplinary procedures may be invoked if there is evidence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Issues may arise if, for example, an employee persists with unwanted attention towards a colleague.

So what about managers who play cupid? Sexual harassment can take a variety of forms in case law. No more so in Craddock v Fontoura t/a Countryclean where the business owner continually suggested that a male employee should form a relationship with a female colleague. The tribunal found that Mr Craddock’s attempts to play cupid did constitute sexual harassment.