The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault is a hashtag on social media that spread virally in October 2017 in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. We hear from Kate Palmer, associate director of advice at Peninsula, about the issues that occur in light of the movement combined with office romances.
It is almost inevitable, with the number of hours that people spend at work and the growing social opportunities that romantic relationships will occur between colleagues. Because this can blur the lines on professionalism at work, some employers may be concerned about the effect that these relationships can have on the workplace in light of the #MeToo movement. This movement, in which a great number of women have come forward claiming to have been sexually harassed within a professional environment, originated in October 2017 when Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of using his position to sexually abuse women.
Legally, there are no laws preventing office romances and it is usually left to employers to determine how they are going to respond to them. However, although it may be tempting for employers to implement a complete office ban on romances, or ‘love contract’, this rule can be very unpopular among the workforce, highly difficult to enforce and potentially breach the human rights of the employees. It is therefore advisable for an employer to outline within their company policies what is considered appropriate behaviour in their workplace and place a requirement upon any individuals entering into a relationship to disclose this to their manager. From there, employers can decide if the individuals should work separately in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest within ongoing projects or general working duties. This can also help to avoid accusations of preferential treatment from other members of staff if the relationship involves a manager and someone on their team.
Employers may also be concerned about what the implications could be if the relationship turns sour, which could expose the company to increased liability such as accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination. It is therefore highly advisable that clear policies are maintained that outline a zero tolerance policy to this kind of treatment within the workplace and that both parties to the relationship are reminded of this fact when they disclose it. If either individual is found to be operating in breach of this, employers should process the situation through their usual disciplinary and misconduct procedures.
In order to help to clearly outline the company’s stance on this issue, employers should aim to maintain an open, supportive and approachable culture that strongly encourages those considering entering into a relationship to come forward. This could be done by discussing the procedure for workplace relationships within inductions, ongoing company training or meetings. A proactive and strong approach to this may help in discouraging employees from keeping their relationship a secret, meaning that the employer can take steps to counteract any potential issues that could arise at an early stage. It could also mean that employees feel able to come forward if the relationship does end and the conduct of the other individual is causing them to feel uncomfortable at work, meaning the employers will be able to take action against that person before the situation escalates.
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