The Lawyer's Guide to Office Romance


Date: 15 June 2011

Key in doorMichael Scutt explains how to deal with the pesky legal technicalities behind unusual uses for the stationery cupboard…

You know how it starts: the furtive glances, then the heavy smouldering looks, standing up tall, pulling your tummy in, thinking “I am sex, shall I make my move?” then the full blown look ‘em straight in the eye approach, perhaps even a pout.  Then someone walks into the washroom and says “why are you staring at yourself in the mirror?”

Narcissism is not a desirable trait in a person, but in the workplace it may be less dangerous than falling madly in love with one’s colleagues. Office romances may be fine whilst the birds are still cooing sweetly and the flowers are in bloom, but what happens when the adorable songbird of love is eaten by the evil Cat of jealousy and thrown up on the cold hard patio of vanquished dreams? Tears all round that’s what.

I came across an article in an online journal called Here is the City a couple of weeks ago and that referred to a “recent survey” which produced some interesting statistics about bankers and their affairs. The post does not reveal who carried out the survey, so perhaps some of these statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt;

72 per cent of bankers had had an affair. 82 per cent of male bankers had had an affair with a more junior work colleague and 26 per cent with their PA/Secretary,

The average length of affair for a man was 21 days, comprising 4 meetings at an average cost of £352 per meeting, whereas the average affair for a female banker was 136 days, incorporating 31 meetings. The survey doesn’t record how much female bankers spent on presents etc. I’m not sure how these statistics tie up with each other.

What motivated these people to have a workplace affair? 12 per cent said they played away because their wife no longer understood them, 17 per cent for the thrill, 5 per cent said because they could and a rather ungallant 24 per cent said they did so because their wife now reminded them more of their mother (“Yes dear, now put away your Ferrari, it’s time for your bath … do be a good boy”).

Workplace affairs have always happened and no doubt will continue just as much in the future, perhaps more given the increasing amount of time that we spend in the office away from our official significant others. Affairs can give rise to obvious conflicts of interest and distract attention away from business, particularly in an office environment. Some employers place restrictions or try and discourage them, which is probably prudent given the unpleasantness that can arise when everything goes sour.  

Employers would be well advised to have a clause in the contracts of employment they use, or introduce a policy governing workplace affairs if they want to try and regulate or prevent them. For instance, options include requiring disclosure of anything more than a platonic relationship between two employees or stating that the respective parties will be re-assigned into other roles away from each other if a romantic relationship develops. Arguably when senior employees are involved a workplace relationship can be a breach of the duty of fidelity owed to the employer given the potential conflict of interest. Don’t forget that both heterosexual and homosexual relationships need to be covered by any such policy to avoid accusations of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.  

Of course, it is when one of the participants in the relationship has to make the other redundant that things can take a nasty turn and allegations of unfair selection (and thus unfair dismissal) can arise. It can get worse too, a claim for sex discrimination might also be made.   

So much for employers. What should employees do if “one thing leads to another”? In the first instance check to see whether the employer has a policy (contractually binding or otherwise) governing workplace affairs. If there is then careful thought needs to be given to whether it applies to your situation. Does a one night stand “qualify”? Failure to comply might lead to disciplinary proceedings but, on the other hand, owning up to a romantic entanglement will probably be embarrassing and potentially disruptive to career trajectories. Therein lies the problem - failure to disclose when required to do so could be even worse if everything goes Pete Tong in due course.

For those employees who do get drawn together and don’t want to share their joy with the world then there are only two bits of advice to give: (1) Remember that discretion is the better part of valour. Be discreet - don’t flaunt it even if the other party is the hottest thing since the poptart. Keep professional in the office and try not to let your infatuation with the adored one become apparent. The other tip, which follows on from the first is to remember the toast that the sailors on Shackleton’s heroic but unsuccessful trip to the South Pole in 1914 used to give to each other every week: “To our wives and girlfriends, may they never meet”. The chances of this happening will be much reduced if you don’t broadcast the relationship on Facebook or post incriminating photos.    

Better still, don’t get involved at all.

Michael Scutt, Dale Langley & Co

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