Prime Minister David Cameron was apparently 'stunned' at reports that two high profile figures in the UK government are having an affair (Photo: Reuters)
Prime Minister David Cameron was apparently 'stunned' at reports that two high profile figures in the UK government are having an affair (Photo: Reuters)

Recent press coverage of two 'high-profile figures' in Whitehall apparently having an affair has left Prime Minister David Cameron "stunned".

We assume that there must be some type of injunction in place preventing the details being made public. However, it does bring up some interesting issues about the implications of a workplace romance.

This is certainly not the first workplace affair and it undoubtedly won't be the last.

Whatever your view on the morality of such conduct, actually having an affair with a colleague is unlikely to warrant any disciplinary action unless there are specific restrictions within the organisation which ban relationships between staff.

However, there are certain circumstances where a workplace relationship (be it adulterous or not) may become relevant.

Confidentiality is 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 your 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 and could lead to a problematic conflict of interest.

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, which may give rise to an immediate dismissal, without notice.

The Business is Brought into Disrepute

The Mail on Sunday has alleged that David Cameron considers the love affair will lead to negative perceptions for his party.

Arguably, the most important aspect of running a successful business (or political party) is a good reputation and it's certainly an integral part of a business' goodwill.

If this is put into jeopardy by employees' conduct, such as by casting doubt on professionalism, then this again could be grounds for disciplinary action.

Behaviour at Work

Inappropriately conducting an affair at work, for example public displays of affection in the workplace or during working time could well result in disciplinary action being taken against the individuals involved. Unsuitable behaviour is likely to make others feel uncomfortable.

A workplace relationship could also lead to employees feeling as though another employee is being treated favourably due to their relationship.

This is particularly likely to occur where the romance is between an employee and their supervisor or manager. For example, employees may feel as though any promotions were unfairly gained and this could result in tensions developing in the workplace.

Another potential minefield is if the relationship turns sour.

This may result in the employees involved refusing to work together, which clearly will have an adverse effect on team morale and productivity.

An important point to note is that this is all on the basis that the relationship is consensual. An employer should also ensure that it monitors, and effectively deals with, any harassment by one employee towards another.

How Can Businesses Prevent These Issues Arising?

It's not all doom and gloom; relationships usually make people happy and happy people are usually more productive.

However, you could think about introducing a policy on relationships at work.

The policy should set out what is acceptable (and unacceptable!) behaviour and seek to manage, rather than ban, workplace relationships - it is important not to disproportionately interfere with an individual's right to a private life.

It may also be useful to set out acceptable behaviour based on seniority and team structure, if some relationships are likely to impact on your workplace more than others.

The policy should set out the consequences of non-adherence and deal with romance at work between any employees generally, not only adulterous ones as this could potentially give rise to allegations of discrimination on grounds of marital status.

Remember, as always, if you are considering taking disciplinary action against an employee, you must ensure that you act fairly and reasonably and follow your own disciplinary policy and ACAS guidance in order to avoid disgruntled employees commencing proceedings against the company in the Employment Tribunal.

Employees with one year's service before 6 April 2012 and those with two years' service from 6 April 2012 are entitled to bring a claim for unfair dismissal.

However, no qualifying period is necessary for an employee to make a discrimination claim.

Jemma Pugh is a solicitor at Lester Aldridge LLP