The average working individual spends a great deal of time at work. In fact, according to at least one study, South Africans have some of the world’s longest working hours.

As such, the workplace is often a fertile ground for office romances.

Women’s month could be the ideal time to address issues that have historically in many instances become a byproduct of failed office romances – namely: sexual harassment, inappropriate conduct and conflict among staff.

As the prevalence of working from home (WFH) continues due to the ongoing pandemic, the need for employers to have written policies on office romances and appropriate and professional conduct has become even more essential, says Gillian Lumb, director in the employment law practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH).

“Office romances are often inevitable, and the fact that a lot of employees are now working from home, makes these relationships more difficult to regulate,” she explains. “While everyone has an right to make choices regarding their personal lives, those choices should not disrupt a harmonious working environment.

“Workplace policies should account for standards of acceptable behaviour and a corporate culture that fosters a sense of mutual respect.”

The workplace has gone digital, with rendezvous at the water cooler replaced by Zoom, Teams and Whatsapp interactions.

Lumb points out that the new reliance on technology for office communication creates the opportunity for another level of risk as colleagues now communicate with each other digitally in ways they did not before. “Now we’re sending memes and funny videos but we need to draw the line when these videos and memes are inappropriate, or have unsolicited sexual undertones.”

He says that every employer needs to set the standard for what is appropriate and inappropriate within the workplace, whether employees are working on-site or remotely. Clear, concise policies, employee orientation and internal training programmes can prevent unnecessary difficulties and help employers to circumvent any legal damage that may arise as a result of behaviour that imposes on the rights or wellbeing of an employee.