HR departments trying to formalise flirting

Dec 11 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

A survey of leading employers carried out for IRS Employment review has found that the proportion of firms who have written guidelines for office romances has more than doubled in the last two years.

According to the survey of 43 companies and institutions – including BT, the Foreign Office, five NHS trusts and four finance houses – some 28 per cent of employers are considering bringing in formal guidelines. But less than ten per cent currently have formal written policies in place for dealing with workplace relationships, particularly between managers and subordinates.

IRS Employment Review managing editor Mark Crail said: “With the UK’s long hours work culture, people’s personal and professional lives will inevitably merge. Anecdotal evidence suggests that half of us meet our partner through work. But with more tolerance of workers getting together at social events, managers have to decide when a bit of fun lapses into inappropriate behaviour during working hours.”

”The challenge for managers” he added “is to ensure that their policies don’t invade the private lives of their staff but which do maintain a professional working environment. ”

The growth in office romances has led to human resource managers now trying to formalise flirting, in a bid to minimise possible legal action against employers if an relationship ends.

According to the study, employers have to strike a delicate balance between the privacy of their employees and their legal obligations. "If dealt with appropriately and conducted sensibly, workplace romances should not present any problem to employers. But get it wrong, and the consequences can be far reaching – potential claims for sexual harassment, charges of favouritism, decreased productivity and fear of reprisal or retaliation."

Some 40 per cent of companies still prefer to solve any potential difficulties informally with the people involved. Ten per cent said they actively encourage a workplace culture that makes office romances unacceptable. Other employers believe office romances can only be disruptive. One HR manager said: "We have a large number of workplace relationships, and I believe they often undermine core issues such as productivity, teamwork and motivation."

Nevertheless, the majority of respondents were relaxed in their attitudes towards workplace romance. Nine out of 10 did not object to employees working in the same division or geographical location - office or site. And three quarters would even allow them to work in the same department. But only half the respondents said they would let a couple work together as part of a team.

Unlike the situation in the United States, UK workplaces tend to have “unwritten rules” about what constitutes unacceptable behaviour by employees, with more tolerance shown during workplace social events.

One company in the survey has a policy that all office relationships must declared, saying: "Any employee who is working with a person with whom they have a personal relationship should inform the personnel manager."

None of the firms surveyed have yet adopted the type of "love contracts” now commonplace in US firms whereby workplace couples undertake not to sue their employer for sexual harassment should the relationship end.

The full survey is published in IRS Employment Review 765, available from Sue Jackson, LexisNexis IRS, 18-20 Highbury Place, London N5 1QP, tel: 020-7354 6742, price £30.