Law: An end to the office romance

Our Learned Friend
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The Independent Culture
YOUR EYES meet across a crowded room at a social gathering organised by your employer. There is a quiver of recognition. Your breathing becomes shallow and your hands tremble. You know that this man was meant for you and that you are going to have his baby.

Twelve months later, you are sitting in a solicitor's office crying your eyes out and trying to work out where it all went wrong. You have been sacked and, without a job, you now face an uncertain future.

It may seem unlikely, but in today's workplace, the jump from the first scenario to the next is all too common.

It is a truism that people are spending an increasing proportion of their lives in the workplace. Although the Working Time Directive will soon be law, this has not stopped the workplace from becoming the setting where people spend most of their lives. The difficulty of finding a suitable mate in the city means that, increasingly, employees are looking to their employer to provide them not only with a job and careeradvancement, but also their soul mate - or at least an extramarital affair.

Relationships at work are not just a problem for the Bill Clintons of this world. Over the last few years, in my capacity as an employment solicitor I have advised many employees, in particular women, who have lost their jobs as a result of "intimate relationships" which blossomed and then combusted in the workplace. Sometimes, that wreckage can lead to the destruction of company property or involve self-inflicted injuries. To guard against such situations, the employer must be careful to take appropriate steps to ensure that a safe working environment is maintained for all their employees.

In other instances, the problem lies not so much with the employees, but rather with management. It is still possible for senior employees not to appreciate that, in their role as managers, they must be particularly careful. I have had cases where senior managers have overstepped the mark and become obsessed with an employee. When that employee has rebuffed the senior manager's advances, this has led to trumped-up disciplinary charges, and ultimately, to dismissal of the junior party.

Of course, when a man or woman is embroiled in a set of circumstances where it looks as if, through no fault of their own, they will lose their job as a result of passions running inappropriately high in the workplace, they can seek advice from a law centre, a Citizen's Advice Bureau or an employment solicitor. If an employee has suffered adverse treatment which relates back to a personal relationship in the workplace, there may well be grounds for bringing a sex discrimination claim.

Ultimately, if things get totally out of hand and the employee loses the job, then, provided he or she has the necessary two years' service, they can bring a claim for unfair dismissal in the industrial tribunal. There may also be another opportunity to claim sex discrimination. As any lawyer will tell you, discrimination cases, although difficult, can be extremely lucrative because there is no upper limit on the compensation that can be awarded. It is envisaged that by the end of next year, there will also be no upper limit on the amount of compensation for unfair dismissal and the length of service required in order to bring an unfair dismissal will be just one year.

On the face of it, although office romances may seem attractive, they also carry the seeds of destruction. Although you can seek justice via the industrial tribunal system, it is still the case that many claims take months to be heard in the tribunal.

So, the best advice must be that the next time your eyes meet across a crowded office, you should return your gaze to your desk, take a deep breath, dial 192 and get the telephone number for Dateline.

Deborah Annetts is a partner and head of the employment unit at Stephens Innocent