Office Romances post #MeToo

Given we spend 90% of our day with our work colleagues it is not surprising that the workplace is reported to be the second most popular way to meet a significant other. 15% of people report having met a significant partner in the workplace.

Workplace relationships can become problematic for any senior level executive – but especially so if you are a male senior executive that is involved in a relationship with a more junior female member of staff. The difference in seniority, even where the relationship is consensual and no complaint has been raised by the junior employee, invites the question whether the more junior employee acted entirely consensually or whether they somehow felt obliged to go along with the situation, fearing that to do otherwise would in some way damage their career prospects.

Post Weinstein (which took down an entire business empire reported to have been worth around £500m) and the resulting #MeToo campaign, employers are concerned about their reputation especially given the interest in anonymous employer review sites like Glassdoor and as a result many are reviewing how they should deal with workplace relationships.

We have seen some employers starting to use the existence of a relationship between a senior male executive and a more junior female member of staff as a weapon. The relationship is used as a way of trying to put pressure on the senior executive to leave the business. Whilst in the absence of any policy outright banning such relationships or requiring the employee to report the relationship (where they fail to do so) and where both parties are freely consenting, arguably the senior executive has done nothing wrong but we are seeing more and more employers suggesting that post #MeToo, such relationships are unacceptable and risk damaging the employer’s reputation. Most employment contracts provide for dismissal without notice in circumstances where the employee acts in way which risks bringing the employer into disrepute.

Any senior executive wanting to understand more about how their employer will view such a relationship should start by checking any company policy in relation to workplace relationships. For example, there may be an obligation to notify their employer or such relationships may be prohibited entirely. The company will be keen to try to protect itself from any potential discrimination claims by junior employees arising as a result of such relationships especially as the employer risks being held vicariously liable for the actions of its staff.

If there is a duty to report, employees should not imagine they can easily keep things secret. By failing to disclose they will risk termination where there is stated duty to report.

The company may have a policy of moving one of the parties in a relationship to another department or office location, to avoid any allegation of favouritism or to ensure a hostile working environment is not created as a result of any break up. Clearly a move to a satellite office may not be ideal in terms of career progression but may be legitimate if provided for contractually.

The imbalance of power in a relationship in the workplace could be a basis for a potential claim if the relationship breaks down. The more junior employee could argue that they were coerced into the relationship or felt pressured due to the seniority of the other party or even allege discrimination or harassment – that the attention of the more senior employee was unwanted and caused a hostile working environment to develop.

In the USA ‘love contracts’ are used to try and regulate workplace relationships. A love contract is a legal document that employees are asked to sign if they are romantically involved to limit the employer’s liability from any related claims – broadly, it confirms:

  • That the parties are entering into a consensual relationship without any duress
  • They have reviewed the company’s policy on harassment
  • That they will notify the company if their relationship comes to an end
  • That they will not allow their relationship to affect their work or their colleagues in the workplace, e.g. in respect of favouritism or disputes regarding their relationship creating an uncomfortable working environment
  • They will limit any affection in the workplace

Although love contracts are not common within the UK due to issues surrounding the enforceability, there has been a reported rise recently in their use.

For an amusing BBC video about #MeToo issues please click here

This article is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking or deciding not to take any action.