Valentine's Day 2014: The Legal Problems in Office Romances
Valentine's Day 2014: The Legal Problems in Office RomancesReuters

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, those looking for love may not need to look any further than the peripheries of the office.

Most people who work in the same environment and with the same people on a daily basis develop strong working relationships with their colleagues.

This is particularly true for those professions where people spend more time with their colleagues than they do anyone else.

Blurring the Lines

Although strong working relationships are imperative for a successful business, it is not uncommon for these relationships to stray beyond the boundaries of a professional working relationship and into the realms of romance.

A survey referred to on the Acas website has found that three quarters of employees have considered a romance in the office and more than half have actually embarked on a relationship with a colleague.

As common as it is to find love in the workplace, any such decision should be treated with caution and Valentine's Day is the perfect time for employers to reconsider their policies where workplace romance is concerned.

A relationship with a colleague is unlikely to warrant any disciplinary action unless there are specific restrictions within the organisation which ban relationships between staff, however businesses should consider a policy which requires a relationship to be disclosed.

Many employees hide the fact that they are in a relationship, particularly if one is more senior, and many issues for the employer can arise as a result, for example:

Confidentiality may be breached: Businesses will clearly always have confidential information, be it trade secrets or information about clients. Keeping this information confidential can be key to protecting the interests of the business. This could be compromised by two people, even within the same company, sharing information which is confidential to a particular team, deal or client.

Often there are confidentiality clauses within employment contracts. By revealing confidential information, an employee is likely to be in breach of contract. This could potentially result in disciplinary action being taken against them. Depending on the seriousness of the breach, this could even amount to gross misconduct.

The business may be brought into disrepute: Depending upon the circumstances of the relationship and the reputation of the company, it is possible that a workplace romance, particularly if it derives from an affair for example, may bring the business into disrepute and lead to negative perceptions of the company. Arguably, the most important aspect of running a successful business is a good reputation. If this is put into jeopardy by employees' conduct, then again, this could be grounds for disciplinary action.

Behaviour at work: Inappropriately conducting a relationship at work, for example, unsuitable behaviour in the workplace or during working time, could well result in disciplinary action being taken against the individuals involved. Employers also need to be cautious about the implications of when a relationship goes wrong. There is always the possibility of employee grievances and even sexual harassment claims which could arise, especially if a break-up has been particularly bad.

Negative treatment by colleagues: Employees embarking on a workplace romance may also find themselves being treated negatively by colleagues which could result in grievances and complaints from the employees concerned. These will clearly be of concern to employers who, without knowledge of the relationship, may find themselves unprepared and unable to effectively manage the situation.

A 'no romance' policy may not be necessary but a policy which requires employees to disclose a workplace romance can be very beneficial to the employer as well as to employees.

From an employer's perspective, the risks considered above can be effectively managed and from an employee's perspective, the policy will clarify their position should romance be in their sights.

Some employees do not consider the effects a workplace romance can have on a business and if a policy is not in place, may not realise how serious these concerns can be. A robust policy can ensure that disciplinary action can be taken promptly and consistently should any issues arise as a result.

There have been several articles containing advice for employees considering workplace romance, with helpful tips such as don't date a supervisor, don't let romance affect performance and avoid PDAs (public displays of affection)!

As good as this advice is, and as helpful as a policy may be, of course advice and policies are not always followed. Remember, as always, if you are considering taking disciplinary action against an employee, act fairly and reasonably and follow your own disciplinary policy and ACAS guidance.

Catharine Geddes is a partner at law firm Lester Aldridge