It may be the most romantic day of the year, but it can also be the kiss of death for a career.

For even apparently innocuous hearts and flowers messages can prove a minefield for bosses and their staff – if they are unwanted.

Employment law expert Kim Pattullo is urging employers to ensure that St Valentine’s Day doesn’t end up with a legacy of litigation, thanks to a stupid cupid.

The pitfalls can include office romances and the fall-out from break-ups; unwanted attention such as cards, flowers and text messages; even gossip over smutty cards and jealousy over who received the biggest Valentine postbag. The result can be harassment allegations, sexual and otherwise.

Ms Pattullo, an employment law specialist with leading UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP, says: “In the vast majority of workplaces Valentine’s Day is a pleasant, light-hearted interlude. But there can be occasions when employees overstep the line.

“And, if employers have been aware of previous difficulties between staff, but not taken action to nip it in the bud, they may forfeit their defence to any case brought against them. The best defence is to have clear policies in place to avoid harassment in the office.”

For example, an over-familiar approach to one employee, that has not been curbed, followed by an inappropriate and unwanted Valentine card, may be perceived as offensive. And that could be enough to spark a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act or the Sex Discrimination Act, resulting in huge financial awards against the employer.

It could also lead to forced career changes – moving the culprit or the victim out of a department – damage to reputations, disciplinary action or dismissal against the culprit and a claim of victimisation from the victim. And the offensive behaviour does not need to happen on the work premises – employers can be vicariously liable for sexual harassment, if the incident is sufficiently linked to work.

Love at the workplace has forced some star struck lovers to rethink their career plan. In an infamous case, a secretary who ditched her boss to start seeing someone else was fired the same day. Although, in this particular case, the employer was not liable for sexual harassment, it still involved a costly exercise for the employer and the secretary, in the end, still lost her job.

At the World Bank last year, the president was forced to resign when he gave his girlfriend, a fellow Worldbank executive, a promotion and a hefty pay rise in an attempt to avoid breaching the Bank's policy forbidding employees who report to one another from having a relationship.

Taking no-nonsense precautions before the big day is the answer.  According to Kim Pattullo bosses should spell out what is acceptable when cupid is in full flight and aim to shoot down his wayward arrows before they cause offence.

“Employers don’t want to be killjoys, but reminding everyone in an email about appropriate behaviour and communication in the workplace is a good idea. That way they can put themselves in the best position to defend claims where they can prove that reasonable steps have been taken to prevent the harassment, discrimination or other unreasonable conduct.”

But short of a complete unworkable ban, how far is too far?  Once bitten, twice shy employers may chose to follow the American lead with "Love Contracts", documenting the fact that a relationship between employees is consensual, in a bid to protect employers from liability arising from sexual harassment claims.  Although untested in the UK or US courts, it is possible that a strict policy in this area could be construed as a contravention of the employee’s right to a family and private life under the Human Rights Act.  According to Kim Pattullo: "Love Contracts will be no substitute for vigilance in upholding an employer's anti-harassment policy.

“Employers ignore incidents at their peril – employees need to know they are supported and that their well-being is being protected. Don’t leave it to fate on St Valentine’s Day, otherwise that special delivery may not be a bunch of red roses but a sheaf of litigation papers instead.”

Kim Pattullo is a partner specialising in employment law with UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn
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