Valentine’s Day: What rights do office lovebirds have over workplace romances?

The European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated into UK law, states that everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life subject to a few limited exceptions

Matt Gingell
Tuesday 14 February 2017 11:42 GMT
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The office is fertile ground for intimate relationships, and that’s hardly surprising when people spend a long time together.

If you’re lucky enough to get a bunch of flowers or a card from a work colleague on Valentine’s Day and love blossoms, in what circumstances could employers put a stop to the romance?

The right to respect for private and family life

It’s difficult for employers to object to workplace relationships. Romantic ties are personal and any objections would likely to be inconsistent with the right to respect for private and family life under Human Rights’ law.

The European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated into UK law, states that everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life subject to a few limited exceptions. Although only public bodies must expressly comply with this right, it’s relevant to all employers (including the private sector) as courts and tribunals must interpret, as far as possible, all legislation consistently with the right.

Poor performance

Should the relationship affect the work performance of either employee, including if the relationship turns sour, the employer could invoke their poor performance procedures. However, it would be hard to dismiss the employee unless, in spite of an improvement plan being put in place and warnings being issued, an acceptable level of performance had not been reached.

Generally, employees who have two years’ continuous service have the right not to be unfairly dismissed. Employees could argue that their employer did not have a fair reason to dismiss, or that a fair process had not been followed.

Line manager liaisons

In the case of relationships between line managers and those staff that report to them, favouritism and perceived favouritism can be a tricky issue. In some situations it may be appropriate for employers to have policies requiring such a relationship to be disclosed, and that breaching such policies could result in disciplinary action being taken. However, imposing a general requirement on employees to disclose all personal relationships would again be likely to interfere with the right to respect for private and family life.

Employers should apply relationship polices consistently, and our equality legislation prohibits employers discriminating against employees due to certain protected characteristics including age, sex and race, among others.

Supposing, as an example, a male manager in their fifties was having a relationship with a much younger female receptionist and the receptionist was hauled up and not the manager? There could be grounds for age and sex discrimination.

Pillow talk

Confidential information being passed on by staff could also be a problem for employers.

If an employee tells their partner about a confidential discussion with another employee this could breach confidentiality obligations. Disciplinary action might be appropriate.

In another scenario where, for instance, two employees are having an intimate relationship and one leaves the organisation to work for a competitor, there could be a real risk that the remaining employee could disclose confidential information to their partner. If this information were then passed on to the competitor, this could have serious consequences. It would be hard though for the employer to take action disciplinary against the existing employee solely on the basis that there might be a chance of pillow talk.

Usually, therefore, employers aren’t able to meddle with personal relationships at work.

Around 269 AD Valentine was sentenced to beating, stoning and decapitation for performing weddings for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. If an employer frustrates your office romance and threatens to pass sentence, subject to any duty of disclosure, I would tell them politely to mind their own business.

Banning relationships is bad. Love (and not just on the Feast of Saint Valentine) is good and makes the world go round.

Matt Gingell is a partner at Gannons Solicitors, and specialises in employment law. Read all of his articles at

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