50 shades of grey areas of workplace relationships

It seems that over the past few years many employers have become more relaxed about relationships in the workplace. That is until they go wrong ... Kate Russell investigates.

50-SHADES-OF-HRThis year Valentine’s Day weekend coincided with the release of the much talked about film, 50 Shades of Grey. And everyone is talking about it. Certain businesses / organisations expected to be busy because of it. The fire brigade is expecting a high number of calls after couples try tying one another up and then cannot get free.

B&Q have given training to staff about dealing with customers come in asking for rope, cable ties or duct tape as Mr. Grey does in the film. A number of our builders’ merchants have cottoned on to the rise in demand of such products too!

Unsurprisingly considering the hype it’s breaking box office records, but there are many views on the film and what it portrays; Domestic violence campaigners have called for a boycott as it potential encourages or condones abusive relationships.

Some women’s rights groups are urging people to donate the cost of seeing Fifty Shades at the cinema to women’s refuges instead. The critic of the Hollywood Reporter Leslie Felperin, (female) says they have a point because the story is not really about a BDSM relationship; it’s about a woman getting mixed up with a controlling stalker.

The film critics have concluded it’s somewhat mediocre as a film. Justin Chang for Variety wrote “No exactly whip-smart … but in many ways a significant improvement on EL James’ novel. Glossy, well cast, and a consistent hoot until it becomes a serious drag, this neo-‘9½ Weeks’ is above all a slick exercise in carefully brand-managed titillation – edgier than most grown-up studio fare, but otherwise a fairly mild provocation in this porn-saturated day and age.” Whatever you think of the film,Valentine’s Day inevitably leads us to thinking about workplace relationships.

It seems that over the past few years many employers have become more relaxed about relationships in the workplace. That is until they go wrong …….. Dealing with relationships at work can often be a sensitive and complicated matter. It is inevitable that when people work closely together friendships and personal relationships may be formed. It often starts with two people texting outside of working hours.

Sometimes it’s consensual and sometimes it’s not. If the problem then comes into the workplace employers have to deal with it. It’s helpful to have a mobile phone policy to stop this happening during working hours and to limit inappropriate use of company devices. Texting sometimes turns into the exchange of photos.

A few years ago we dealt with a matter where two employees had been flirting via their personal mobile phones. She sent a picture of herself looking very sexy and flirty, but fully clothed. He replied with a picture that left absolutely nothing to the imagination and she raised a complaint of sexual harassment, though did say she liked him and didn’t want him to lose his job. As she had originally been complicit in the flirtatious exchanges and then changed the goalposts, we felt a serious warning was merited, but did not dismiss. Although the matter did not happen during working hours we introduced a mobile phone policy to stop activity during working hours which was basically to turn all personal devices off. Luckily they were in different departments and had no need to see each other at all during work.

Interestingly she was the only employee who complained about this policy! She resigned later that year for unrelated reasons. If a relationship starts between two employees in the workplace, employees are advised to inform their line manager. The information should be treated in the strictest confidence. Matters can become more complicated when an employee – line manager relationship starts. There are two key problems here.

The line manager can be seen as showing favouritism to the employee or when things go wrong the employee will say s/he is being bullied by the line manager. Having a personal relationship at work policy in place can help in such matters. An employer can reserve the right to move one or both employees to different departments when such relationships occur.

Many people meet their partner at or through work. Accept it. Don’t pry into personal details, but make it easy to have discussions. There’s a difference between romance and sexual harassment so be prepared to deal with the latter. Set boundaries around workplace relationships. Have a process in place for dealing with conflicts of interests. 

About Kate Russell

The HR Headmistress, #employmentlaw trainer, HR advisor to business owners & HR professionals, author, speaker, green thumbed babe & whodunnits addict

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