· Features

Office banter: how can employers strike the right balance?

We have all heard about workplace flings that have gone wrong, employees being fired for saying too much on Facebook and discrimination cases that have arisen out of allegedly harmless ‘office banter’.

The solution to avoiding these situations seems obvious: people should draw a clear distinction between personal and office life.

However, in difficult economic times, many of us are spending more hours than ever at work mingling with our colleagues. While this is nothing new, when it is combined with the seemingly exponential rise in social media, flexible working arrangements, clients wanting their service providers to be human and staff wanting their bosses to be friends, the distinction between our professional and private lives is ever harder to maintain.

Growing businesses often feel these issues most acutely. SMEs are commonly started by a couple of friends where, at the outset, there is no distinction between work and home life. As new people join or relationships between the founders change, what was once acceptable banter and common ground can suddenly be open season for allegations of discrimination.

So how can employers strike the right balance?

Office romances might be part and parcel of working life, but they can cause a whole raft of issues. There is the possibility of breach of confidence, favouritism, inappropriate physical activity in the office, followed by resentment and even allegations of harassment when it all goes wrong.

Employers that attempt to ban office romances altogether are fighting a losing battle – this will only encourage employees to keep relationships secret, making it impossible to manage the associated risks. Although more common in the US, some UK companies have opted for the 'love contract' route. Individuals are required to disclose a workplace relationship, confirm that it is consensual and that neither will bring a claim for harassment if the relationship ends. Instinctively, this feels too intrusive for the majority of UK employers and would not, in any event, prevent a claim from being pursued under UK law. That said, employers should recognise and assess the likelihood of romantic liaisons within their business, educate staff on the associated risks and put in place well thought out policies that make it abundantly clear what is and isn't acceptable.

Even purely platonic relationships can cause employers a headache. While friendships and good relations between employees and between staff, suppliers and clients can lead to a happier workforce and increased productivity, if the working environment becomes too informal, work rates can drop and inappropriate jokes, cliquishness and social exclusion can quickly raise their heads. It only takes one employee with a slightly lower tolerance than the rest of the group and the employer will be facing a claim for harassment. Relaxed working environments have many benefits, but employers should drive home that informality is not an excuse for a lack of professionalism.

And then there is Facebook. With employees adding work colleagues as friends, venting about office gripes and often displaying a less than professional side of themselves through their photos, Facebook is a spawning ground for employment- related issues. As an employer, it pays to be vigilant about the use of social media, because jokes and experiences shared by managers or employees online may be seized upon to demonstrate discriminatory attitudes in the workplace. Employees should be reminded that their use of social media has the potential to reflect upon the company and also be educated on the importance of privacy settings. That said, employers should be careful not to overreact to minor indiscretions and to take into account an employee's previous track record. Once again, a transparent and tailored policy clearly setting out the disciplinary sanctions that might result from the various uses of Facebook is essential.

The sheer amount of time we all spend at work means our personal and professional lives will inevitably overlap, but managers should remember that ultimately they are in control of how much they share and if they don't want to read about it as front-page news, they should keep it at home...

Gareth Brahams and Ruth Badrick are members of the employment department at litigation law firm, Stewarts Law