Love is in the air

16 February 2006
Love is in the air

Office flings are usually seen as a headache by most employers, worried that dewy-eyed workers are concentrating on their love lives rather than their day-to-day duties. But according to recent research, workplaces are the perfect playground for people to meet in today's long-hours culture and employers need to take a more lenient view.

If the figures are anything to go by, relationships at work are an unavoidable issue. Nearly three-quarters of staff have had a relationship at work, and a third met their future partner through their job, according to a survey by Lloyds TSB.

In the hospitality industry in particular, when people often work long and unsocial hours, workplace relationships are inevitable. That's the view of Sean Wheeler, group director of people development at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin.

"It happens all the time," he agrees. "Lots of our staff have met, and even married, through work and it's unrealistic to think that it doesn't go on." What's more, he feels it's important to be sympathetic. "You can't dictate to people how they run their lives, and if you're draconian about things it can make things much worse."

He believes work relationships can even have a positive influence. "In certain circumstances, partners could benefit from working together, as they can bounce ideas off each other or give mutual support," he says.

But are there more serious implications for companies, and if so, what can employers do about it? After all, although some American companies are increasingly seeking to prohibit affairs at work, it's certainly not illegal in the UK.

Nevertheless, relationships are a delicate issue, says Frances Wilson, HR adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. "It does depend on the context, but if one or both of them are married with a family, or if one of them is much more senior than the other, it could lead to problems," she says.

Tensions can arise on a working level, for instance. "If someone's coming in late all the time, or there are clandestine meetings going on, that can obviously cause difficulties for the rest of the team," says Wilson. "Favouritism can also be an issue, if somebody's managing a person's performance too generously. You have to be very careful that it's not upsetting other staff."

So if things are getting heated, should employers address the problem? Occupational psychologist Robert Myatt, of Kaisen Consulting, believes so. "People can be easily distracted by rumours and so on, and if things aren't tackled, it can make the issue seem much bigger than it really is," he warns. "Managers have a responsibility for the wellbeing of their teams and it's important to agree boundaries."

Guidelines For Wheeler, speaking to the couple involved could make all the difference. "You have to be sensitive about it, but if it's affecting their work, you have the right to bring it into the open," he explains, adding that even if the company doesn't have a policy on work relationships, it's a good idea to set out some basic guidelines on behaviour and what's expected in a work environment.

For some employers, it's not so much the affair itself that's the problem, but rather any breach of confidentiality that might arise. At the Hilton Metropole in London, for example, one worker's recent transfer application to join their partner in the finance department was turned down on the grounds of conflict of interest.

"Any area which involves money or sensitive information, like payroll, is complicated," says Debbie Hayes, director of human resources. "And we just felt it wasn't appropriate for a couple to be working together in the finance department. It wasn't the relationship itself that was an issue. We realise that it's a fact of life that people meet at work, and if you ignore that you're burying your head in the sand."

At the Peach Pub Company, work relationships are not deemed a problem in themselves, but to avoid conflict of interest, the company is keen to discourage senior members of staff from having relationships with junior employees.

"There's an unwritten rule that relationships are OK but only at a like-for-like level. We wouldn't feel comfortable with a manager going out with a waitress, for example," says Victoria Moon, marketing manager at Peach. "That's mainly because it makes their jobs more difficult. If someone's linked to their boss romantically, managing that person will be extremely tricky."

Many employers now ask staff to sign confidentiality agreements, which can cover information leaks between colleagues that may result from an affair. At hotel chain City Inn, a business ethics agreement was introduced for all staff two months ago which includes the employee's own behaviour as well as their relationships with colleagues, suppliers and guests.

Agreement As City Inn's group HR manager Beth Aarons explains: "We don't have a written policy for staff relationships, but the agreement includes conduct. It's about making staff aware they represent the company at all times, even when they're out socialising, for example."

But she stresses it's not about creating a secretive atmosphere. "That's not our approach at all. It's far better for things like this to be out in the open," she says. "As long as there's no commercial risk, then I don't see the harm in people going out with their colleagues."

Some managers are even happy when couples are able to work together. As David de Jager, general manager at Ask restaurant in Birmingham points out, allowing couples to work side by side could mean they would be more willing to work long hours and unpopular shifts. "We have a chef and a waitress who are a couple, and on Valentine's Day they were both happy to work because they could be together," he explains.

What's the legal situation?
Workplace relationships aren't illegal in the UK, but employers can take steps to protect themselves and employees from potential fallout such as allegations of favouritism, harassment, ugly confrontations, and even stalking.

Hilary Norris, head of employment at Kimbells, recommends:

  • Set out acceptable standards of behaviour - eg, don't engage in inappropriate use of personal e-mails - in the contract of employment, and the disciplinary procedure that will be followed if they're breached.
  • Make sure employees are contractually required to notify the employer if there's a possibility of a conflict of interest or breach of confidentiality.
  • Reserve the right to reallocate responsibilities where a conflict or breach has occurred or might arise.
  • Have a sexual harassment policy that defines what's meant by harassment and makes the consequences of such behaviour clear.

Case Study
When pub landlord Steve Simpson discovered his bar manager and a member of the bar staff were secretly having a relationship, he didn't think it was a problem. "It's fairly inevitable in this industry, and I didn't think it was any of my business," admits Simpson, who owns the Freemasons in Brighton, East Sussex

But when the relationship broke up badly a couple of months later, the situation became more difficult to ignore. "As he was her manager there was a lot of friction between them, and in a small team like ours it caused resentment with other staff," he says. "Their work slipped but I just felt uncomfortable bringing it up. I suppose I hoped it would sort itself out."

The final straw came when, in the busy run-up to Christmas, his bar manager threatened to resign over the affair. "It was a nightmare because we were really busy and it would have been impossible to manage if he'd left," says Simpson. "In the end I managed to persuade him to stay, but unfortunately she decided to go, so I still lost a good member of staff over it."

Now he feels strongly that work relationships should be avoided. "I've got an unwritten, but strict, rule that staff don't date each other, or the customers, which has also led to problems in the past," he says. "So far it hasn't happened again, but if it did I'd feel a lot more confident about sitting down with them to discuss it."

He agrees it's not clear-cut, though. "You're employing young staff in a late-night bar culture, and to a certain extent things are bound to happen. But the way you deal with it can make a difference."

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