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Love around the water cooler

Love around the water cooler

With an estimated quarter of long-term relationships starting at work, the TUC has issued a Valentine’s Day warning today (Friday) that some employers are trying to restrict or control relationships between their staff.

The TUC fears that some employers are trying to copy their counterparts in the United States, where relationship bans and ‘love contracts’ are already commonplace.

These kind of measures are out of place in the UK, says the TUC where employees are more likely to think it is none of their boss’s business. People at work in the UK also have more legal protection for their privacy and rights to association (including the 1998 Human Rights Act), and employers trying to play chaperone may find that some of their more heavy-handed approaches are not actually enforceable here.

TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: 'It’s hardly surprising that relationships do start round the water cooler - after all, we work longer hours than anyone else in Europe. Of course it is right to be careful and think through all the implications, but heavy handed rules and blanket bans fail to understand human nature and may very well be illegal.'

The TUC has put together a guide to help employees find out where they stand on relationships at work, what to do when they happen, what to do when they break up and what to do if you want to say no. Office romantics can read the full guide at

Some example questions from the guide are:

• My company want my partner and I to sign a "love contract". Do we have to?
'Love contracts' are an idea which has proved popular in the US, particularly for senior staff, and there are reports that they have now crossed the Atlantic. They are an attempt to get the employer off the hook for any potential sexual harassment cases, should your relationship turn sour in the future. You both sign an agreement that your relationship is consensual, that you understand your employer’s sexual harassment policy, and set out any rules for how you will both behave while at work. The implication is that your employer is then no longer liable for the conduct of either of you. However, in the UK you can’t be made to sign away your rights to protection from sexual harassment in this fashion, and the existence of a 'love contract' is unlikely to protect the company in a tribunal. Everyone is entitled to a private life, even at work, and if your company is trying to get you to sign an agreement which restricts workplace relationships, this may fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998. If your employer were to dismiss you for refusing to sign a 'love contract', and you had worked for the company for more than one year, you may have grounds for an unfair dismissal claim.

• I want a job with a company, but they won't consider me as my husband works there. Is this allowed?
No. Your prospective employers are not allowed to discriminate against you because you are married, and if they did this, they’d be in breach of discrimination law. You may have an employment tribunal claim against your husband's company, though this is unlikely to help you actually get an advertised job, as it’s a long process. It might also not be the most harmonious way to start a new job if the first time you meet your boss is in court. Get advice from your union or your husband's union, if either of you are union members. It may be possible for you or them to talk with the company and ensure they consider your job application fairly, without having to involve the law.

• I had an affair with a colleague and now I have been asked to leave.
Everyone’s entitled to a private life and having an affair with a colleague is not normally a sacking offence. If you have been sacked just because of the affair, and have worked for your employer for more than one year, you can complain of unfair dismissal to an Employment Tribunal. It is unlawful for employers to treat women or men less favourably because of their sex. If only one of you is being asked to leave because of the affair, you may also have grounds for a sex discrimination claim, regardless of how long you have worked for your employer. If the relationship ended badly you should be careful not to let personal bad feelings spill over into your working relationship. Otherwise it is possible that you could find yourself being accused of sexual harassment or discrimination, particularly if you are in a position of seniority over your colleague. Either way, your employer will have to follow a proper disciplinary procedure, giving you a right to appeal, before they are can dismiss you. Be sure to take legal advice on your situation, and talk to your workplace union representative if you have one.

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