With Valentine’s Day just behind us, it is a good moment to issue a reminder that work is the place where 25% to 30% of couples meet. That means that employment law can sometimes be confronted with – let’s not be afraid to say it – manifestations of love. Even if employment law regulations do not directly address this sensitive subject, they still allow us to lay down some principles.
Every employee is entitled to respect for his or her private life
First of all, this is an area where the employer will be relatively absent, at least initially. All employees have the right to respect for their private life, which means that an organisation cannot forbid relationships or marriage between colleagues: this type of restriction, whether it results from internal rules or from the employment contract, would certainly be doomed to failure. The administrative authorities would require any such provision to be removed from internal rules in the first instance, while the clause would be ineffective in the second, and its nullity will extend to any action taken on the basis of this provision. Does this mean that nothing is off limits for workplace lovers? Absolutely not, and legal pitfalls are fairly numerous at all stages of the relationship.
From getting together to break up: vigilance points
Romantic advances should be both respectful and delicate. If an approach is unsubtle, it could quickly be perceived as detrimental to dignity, or intimidating, and constitute sexist conduct (article L1142-2-1). If the behaviour or remarks are repeated, and if they have sexual connotations (which is possible in this area…), then they will fall under sexual harassment, which is both forbidden by the Labour Code and punishable under the Penal Code (Articles 222-33). Any would-be Casanova must make sure feelings are sincere; words are measured, and remember that no means no. Even when hearts agree, passion must not overrule good sense during work time and in the workplace. The lovers must continue to devote themselves to their professional responsibilities to the exclusion of any other activity during working hours. This is the strict consequence of the principle of separation of professional and private life. If the relationship is between individuals at different levels of the professional hierarchy, a superior must not grant his romantic partner benefits or advantages that other employees do not enjoy. Beyond the disruption that this could create, it would also be a difference in treatment not related to an essential occupational requirement, lacking a legitimate justification in the sense intended by the law (art. L 1133-1). A hierarchical superior who granted their less senior romantic partner a benefit or advantage would be at fault, and could also be disciplined for an unjustified breach of the principle of equality. Finally, it is important to remain professional if a break up occurs. Making inappropriate remarks or insults is unquestionably wrong, without prejudice to this behaviour possibly also being considered a sexist act. Equally, repeatedly seeking to win back a former partner with sexual remarks or behaviour, damaging his or her dignity or creating an intimidating or offensive situation for him or her, will propel the rejected lover into the realm of sexual harassment. Lastly, it is not advisable to seek revenge for romantic rejection in the workplace because, once more, this could be considered unequal treatment or discrimination.
Cupid may not be totally banned from the workplace, but the law leaves him little room to shoot his arrows!