On one level romantic liaisons involving employees are no business of an employer but, when they impact on the working relationships then they are. So should employers have a policy and, if not, how do they manage romantic situations?
Where one person could be in a vulnerable position because of immaturity, learning disability or care needs, a policy may be wise or even necessary. There is also the question of abusing positions of trust, as between a teacher and a pupil, where criminal law can have an impact. And of course sexual harassment, the negative side of “romantic” relationships can take place and, yes, a policy is needed here.
But on the whole sexual relationship policies are questionable because they will run counter to human nature. Sooner or later the policy will be tested and may well get in the way of handling a situation that needs specific and individual management.
What to watch out for:
Impact on team dynamics
The employer’s room for manoeuvre will be limited. Short-term relationships can be disruptive to the environment, especially when they end. Employees implied contract is to co-operate with the employer and so gentle persuasion may enable changes that will reduce the impact. For example a change of shift, working in different offices or separate teams may all be considered but will need to be handled sensitively. Where there is a confirmed relationship these changes may be more formal and confirmed by a reasonable variation in the contract of employment. However, the changes should not be substantive for example they should not affect pay (at least adversely) or career prospects.
Some security depends on the presumed independence and integrity of individuals, such as two keys to a safe. A variation in contract may well be safe here, based on sound business reasons. Ideally your policy should be in the individuals’ contracts of employment already, to cover such eventualities.
Relationships with clients, service users, competitors or suppliers
In exceptional circumstances these could compromise the integrity of the employee as an agent representing the business. Most employees will understand this and co-operate with being removed from the situation, though this may not always be possible. At the extreme Tribunals might support a dismissal on the grounds of it being a substantial reason for dismissal, as they have done so in the case of sexual relationships with competitors. But reasoning and increasingly strong persuasion would be the starting point.
Certain inappropriate relationships, mentioned above, could be the subject of disciplinary action. But in most cases discipline can only be contemplated where the relationship has a clear and adverse effect on the business and based only on the behaviour of the parties.
You cannot discipline against love but overt demonstrations in the office are not necessary and can be the subject of (preferably informal) discipline. Similarly disruptive behaviour resulting from a failed relationship can be the subject of discipline.
But, finally it is worth remembering that a couple working for you may be more effective than two separate individuals. And 25% of people find their life-long partner at work.