Cupid, draw back your bow

Office romance - is a ‘love contract’ the answer?

Recently there has been an increase in news devoted to the subject of office romances; one recent example being McDonalds’ dismissal of Steve Easterbrook.

Perhaps this coverage is due to factors like the festive period which can provide a fertile ground for office romances, or even the “Me too” campaign: these romances can be linked to a heightened potential for a harassment claim. Whatever the reason, where do employers stand on the use of a so-called ‘love contract’ which seeks to ban office romances?

There is no law which specifically covers office romances, however, there are a number of employment law considerations when deciding whether, and if so, how, these romances should be treated in a business setting. Some take the view that, in an era where many spend more time in the workplace than at home, hence increasing the prospect of office romances, seeking to introduce rules governing those romances is akin to interfering in the individual’s private lives and thus a step too far. It can also be a thorny area that many managers may prefer to avoid tackling and would rather ignore. Others, however, seek to minimise potential risks to a business arising from office romances. These risks (which can result in claims of harassment, discrimination and/or constructive/unfair dismissal, and loss of valued staff if the relationship eventually fails) are often perceived, arguably with good reason, to be at their greatest when the romance is between a senior employee and a junior employee.

Whilst a total ban on workplace relationships is unlikely to be appropriate, less austere requirements may strike a balance between the right to protect the business and the right to a private life. These requirements can be either set out in existing policies (such as bullying and harassment policies, equal opportunities policies and/or disciplinary policies) or contained in a dedicated relationships policy. In certain instances, it may be appropriate to include express obligations in an employee’s contract of employment – this should be approached with care and on a case by case basis. Ultimately, irrespective of where these requirements are stated, they must be app d in a consistent and non-discriminatory way.

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