Employees spend a good portion of their waking hours in the working environment (often with people who share similar interests to themselves) – given this it isn’t a surprise that relationships regularly develop in the workplace.

How employers deal with these relationships in the workplace is the important element here. Risks for both the employer and the employees exist in these scenarios.

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Some workplace relationships turn into long-term, healthy relationships where the couple are very happy with each other. However, often the situation doesn’t end on such a positive note and it can, in certain instances, create a very awkward working environment for the individuals involved as well as other members of the department who are present in the aftermath.

Office relationships can, at times, be a very positive thing for a business – it can encourage high levels of morale in the workplace and that, in turn, can improve standards of productivity and creativity. Unfortunately, however, workplace relationships can also have negative effects. Employee attention could be focused on the relationship as opposed to the duties of the role and this could lead to a decline in productivity or performance which, subsequently, could threaten the company’s success.

Banning relationships between colleagues isn’t the best route to take for a number of reasons (it isn’t really enforceable), however, it is absolutely essential that employers put certain policies in place in order to avoid what could result in a very awkward conclusion.

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Clear rules should be devised for two employees who wish to engage in a mutual relationship. To ensure that your company avoids any hints of sexual harassment it is essential to put clear and concise guidelines in place (employers in Ireland are actually obliged to have policies and procedures on bullying and harassment in place).

It might be a good idea to have a rule that restricts employees from having a relationship with a superior in their own department, for instance, stressing that the rule is the same for all and that its function is to protect employees against sexual harassment and favouritism.

Restricting certain behaviour is absolutely paramount as inappropriate behaviour, such as public displays of affection, in the workplace is not acceptable and can compromise the internal culture of the company. Implementing strict rules that leave no room for ambiguity is advisable.

Dignity in the workplace is the right of every employee. It is imperative that you take the dignity at work policy very seriously to protect yourself, as an employer, from a lawsuit and to protect your employees at the same time.  The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011 mean that employers are liable for harassment in the workplace. Harassment is defined as any form of unwelcome/unwanted conduct relating to any of the discriminatory grounds – gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, age, disability, race, religious belief and membership of the Traveller community.

Sexual harassment comes under the bullying and harassment umbrella and includes any act of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment violates a person’s dignity by creating an intimidating, hostile or humiliating environment for the person.

It is crucial for employers to be aware that they may be held legally responsible/liable for the harassment or bullying that occurs in the workplace – even where they are not aware that this is taking place.

Employers should include an acceptable grievance or complaints outline in the dignity at work policy so that employees are not only aware of what is expected of them but what happens when they breach the policy too.

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