Valentine’s Day could prove to be an “expensive minefield” in offices and other workplaces around the country, lawyers warned yesterday.
They said the chance to express your love, or in some cases simply lust, can fuel a barrage of costly sexual harassment claims from aggrieved workers.
Even just sending a Valentine’s Day card on Wednesday could backfire because it could constitute an “unwanted sexual advance.”
The warning, from Employment Law Advisory Services, will strike a note of fear into anybody planning a surprise for a colleague this week.
Peter Mooney (corr), head of consultancy at the Manchester-based firm, said: “It might all seem like a joke and a bit of fun at the time.
“But the risks to employers on Valentine’s Day are real and extremely serious.
“Not only do bosses have to navigate a minefield in terms of all the things which can go wrong. The cost of getting it wrong can be huge.”
He said the humour in Valentine’s Day cards can be “highly inappropriate for a workplace.”
Many are innocent cards covered in red hearts or pictures of Eros, the Greek god of love.
But others take a smuttier, potentially more offensive, approach which could prove disastrous if the recipient does not share the same feelings or sense of humour.
Employment Law Advisory Services warned a card can be no different to receiving any other form of unwanted sexual advance from a colleague.
Conversations about the number of Valentine’s Day cards which someone has received can also involve venturing into dangerous territory. In its advice leaflet, it warned: “Someone who received none might be sensitive, and perceive they are being bullied.
“Someone else who receives 10 can often find themselves being accused of being promiscuous which can be offensive, even if it is meant as a joke.”
“Another firm of employment lawyers, Peninsula, said most managers are not aware of the problems which can be caused by ‘unwelcome attention.”
Mr Mooney said: “A tribunal on charges of sexual discrimination can lead to firms facing uncapped awards against staff.
“And the cost of losing a High Court case for harassment can sometimes run into the millions.”
In the most extreme example, bosses can even get into trouble if one worker is sent a large bouquet of flowers on Valentine’s Day.
The leaflet says: “If you have one employee who has bad hayfever, or a similar allergy, sat next to a member of staff who receives a lot of flowers, the employer could be in breach of their duty to provide an amenable working environment.”
Overall, people are expected to splash out about £2.4 billion on Valentine’s Day this year, typically buying cards, chocolates, flowers and jewellery, according to the British Retail Consortium.
The average spend per person is £95.80, and more than half of the population is expected to spend something on the special day.
To make matters worse, bosses face an added headache on Wednesday.
There is a higher rate of “sickies” in February when many of Britain’s 29 million workers cannot resist the opportunity of a day, or several days, at home.