With Valentine’s Day approaching, we look at the legality of, and challenges presented by workplace romances.
Relationships in the workplace – and their inevitable breakups – can cause significant challenges for employers. The drama surrounding these relationships can dampen employee morale and productivity, while also opening doors to claims of unequal treatment or even sexual harassment.
Maltese law does not explicitly prevent or regulate workplace relationships. However, the Maltese Constitution guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, including the right to private and family life. This means that employers cannot outright ban workplace relationships, as it would infringe upon individual rights. Furthermore, dismissing an employee solely due to them being in a workplace relationship, might lack the good and sufficient cause required for termination of employment under Malta law, and could lead to potential claims of unfair dismissal against the employer.
Nevertheless, having individuals who are involved in a relationship working alongside each other, may present various legal and practical challenges for employers. Workplace relationships may lead to claims of unequal treatment or sexual harassment, as well as the real or perceived risk of a conflict of interest, breaches of confidentiality, disruptions to workflow, and possible legal claims should the relationship break down.
When it comes to office romances, things usually roll smoothly if both people are on the same page about taking things beyond the cubicle. Many long-term relationships kick off at work. But, the vibe takes a nosedive when someone feels they’re getting hit with unwanted flirtations or actions related to their gender. It’s like a breach of personal space or creating a super awkward atmosphere.
This awkwardness could range from comments with a little too much spice, words in emails or cards that feel cringy, to physical actions that make everyone uncomfortable. Even the work chat apps like Microsoft Teams or Slack, intended for work related communication, can turn into a tool for harassment.
Bottom line – it’s not about the intentions behind the behaviour, it’s about how it makes people feel. If someone can show they are feeling uncomfortable, that is the key to figuring out if the office vibe is off.
And let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that harassment is a non-issue in Malta. In fact, some alarming stats have surfaced, revealing that a staggering 3 out of 4 women have reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Workplace romances carry potential risks that employers must address to maintain a professional and safe work environment. Some of the key risks include:
Challenges related to office romance are not confined to smaller companies, even large corporations grapple with these issues. High-profile cases continue to make headlines, underscoring the universality of the challenges surrounding workplace relationships. Amongst others, there was the resignation of Chief Executive Officer of BP due to undisclosed relationships with colleagues and former McDonald’s boss fined over employee relationship.
Employers can mitigate risks associated with workplace romance by implementing policies on office romances within their employee handbook and fostering an open and supportive culture. This includes:
Romantic relationships in professional settings, particularly between a boss and a more junior, may presents significant considerations of conflict of interest. The inherent power imbalance raises valid concerns. To address these concerns, it is crucial for organizations to establish clear codes of conduct that outline the implications of conflicts of interest that may arise. Specifically, guidelines should address situations where personal relationships could influence decisions related to compensation, advancement, or management. By instilling transparency and accountability, companies can maintain integrity and ensure equitable treatment for all employees.
Effectively navigating workplace romances poses a challenge for employers, particularly in the context of the #MeToo era. Employers should carefully deliberate the extent to which they wish to either prohibit or discourage such relationships within their work policies. Additionally, consideration should be given to whether employees will be required to disclose romantic involvements within the workplace.
At Empleo, we offer legal advice and support to employers on all legal matters surrounding the above, including the preparation and maintenance of internal policies and procedures relating to workplace romance.
Mariella graduated from the University of Malta with a doctorate in law in 2005. She completed a master’s degree in ‘European Private Law’ from the La Sapienza, University of Rome, and was admitted to the bar in Malta in 2006.
Mariella is a people person – and it is this attribute which has really characterised and shaped her career.
Over the years, she headed the legal departments of several corporate services firms. Due to her skillset, she was also entrusted with managing and overseeing operations and human resources, where she gained technical and practical experience in various corporate, commercial and employment matters.
Her practical hands-on experience and insight perfectly complement Mariella’s technical knowledge of employment law, thus placing her in an ideal position to understand and advise employers and employees alike on various matters that may arise at the workplace.
Mariella is passionate about employment law matters and provides her clients with the highest-quality legal service to achieve the best possible outcome and resolve any employment law related issues and concerns.
Bradley graduated Doctor of Laws from the University of Malta in 2005 and was admitted to the Bar in Malta in 2006. He advises clients on various corporate, commercial, employment and regulatory matters, with particular focus on company and financial services law.
He has assisted clients in various corporate and commercial matters by providing company law advice and assisting in the implementation of corporate finance, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions and similar transactions.
Bradley has also advised and assisted investment funds, fund managers and other investment services providers, banks and financial institutions, on various legal and regulatory matters relating to the setting up, authorisation and ongoing conduct of their activities in Malta.
His practice also covers general employment law matters. Bradley’s experience in company and financial services law enables him to focus on various corporate and regulatory aspects of employment relationships. In particular, he advises organisations on the implementation of employee share option and participation schemes, the implications of business transfers on employment relationships, as well as relations with senior employees.
Karl graduated Doctor of Laws from the University of Malta in 2005 and was admitted to the Bar in Malta in 2006.
Karl has gained considerable expertise in technology law and regularly assists clients in relation to intellectual property issues, commercial contracts and ways to ensure compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and privacy laws. Whilst such matters used to be only given incidental importance when dealing with employment matters, they are now widely acknowledged to be vital in all employment relationships.
He is also regularly engaged by C-level executives to assist in negotiating employment contracts and settlement agreements.
Karl advises across a multitude of industries including technology; marketing; adtech; financial services; gaming; esports; consumer products; and media and telecommunications.