Personal Relationships in the Workplace
Workplace relationships are frequent due to the amount of time that colleagues spend together at work. To date, there are no set legal rules to prevent or control personal relationships in the workplace. Although, many companies choose to have a relationship policy which sets out procedures to follow when relationships start between colleagues. Without these guidelines, personal relationships at work can result in problems leading to discipline and grievance management measures. Policies should aim to strike a balance between keeping employees’ happy and protecting your business.
Types of Personal Relationships at Work
Many romantic relationships start at work. British data analytics firm YouGov research reveals that nearly a fifth of British people meet their partner at work. Philip Richardson, Head of Employment Law at leading UK law firm, Stephensons quotes:
“While the coronavirus lockdown may have cooled some simmering office romances over recent months, it’s well known that many personal relationships are forged in the workplace”.
Romantic relationships in the workplace have recently been thrust into HR news due to the recent firing of food giant McDonald’s British CEO. Steve Easterbrook is on record as breaching the company’s policy by engaging in a (consensual) relationship with an employee. As a result of further investigations, the company is now seeking to recover Easterbrook’s (reportedly worth) £35m settlement agreement.
Personal relationships in the workplace may include short-term dating or long-term partnerships. Depending on the size of your business, you may also wish to extend the policy to cover other types of relationship, such as those between relatives.
If you choose to have a policy about personal relationships at work, it should set out the behaviour you expect from employees. Most relationship policies stress that employees shouldn’t allow a personal relationship with a colleague to influence their conduct or performance at work. You may wish to include guidance on hiring an employee that is known to the recruiter. For example, you could state that this is declared prior to interview. Where there is a potential conflict of interest, some policies reserve the right to transfer one or both employees to another department, or to change their reporting lines.
Typically, if a workplace relationship affects the behaviour or performance of employees, it should be managed and dealt with in the same way as other conduct or performance related matters. Dealing with the process in a reasonable way is through a fair disciplinary process.
Some companies go so far as to specify in employment contracts that employees are banned from forming any intimate relationships with colleagues. If you intend to take this zero-tolerance approach, then it should be clearly communicated. That said, many businesses consider this ethos to be out of date. Points to consider for your HR policy include:
- Any likely conflict of interest.
- How a relationship might affect the working environment.
- All risks that the relationship might cause.
- What steps can be taken to tackle these matters.
As well as thinking of the negatives, remember that having friends and family working together can also be positive.
Why a Relationship Policy Benefits Employees
Employees should feel confident of fair and consistent treatment without the fear that a relationship will influence their or other employees’ treatment. If employees feel that there is one rule for some people and different rules for others, then resentment can arise. Any employment policy about relationships at work intends to ensure that staff cannot be accused of:
- Public displays of affection.
- Open shows of favouritism.
- Abuse of authority.
How to Manage Work Personal Relationships
If you are approached by staff about sensitive issues, the key is to deal with them confidently and professionally through an HR investigation. Perhaps remind your staff of the company’s policy guidelines and work with them to avoid unprofessional behaviour. Several issues may need to be considered from a business perspective:
- Risks to confidential business information.
- Future issues of discrimination and harassment.
- Potential conflicts of interest.
- Actual or perceived bias regarding processes such as recruitment and promotion, working hours and annual leave allocation, and appraisals.
Workplace Relationship Discrimination
Any breaches of a relationship policy can be dealt with under your Company’s disciplinary policy. In theory, this policy can used to help defend your business from potential claims.
For serious cases of where a breach in the relationship policy occurs, disciplinary steps can be taken. Although, to totally avoid discriminating against staff under the Equality Act 2010, consider outsourcing to an HR company or management training.
Before taking any action, consider the employees’ sex, sexual orientation and age. Don’t simply transfer the more junior employee to a different department. Should there be more women in junior roles at your company, this might result in a discriminating against women lawsuit.
Dealing with each partner in the same way can help limit the risk of either party heading for a discrimination or constructive dismissal claim. Relationships at work can raise a legal risk which will expose you to claims of harassment and sex discrimination.
Often, the further up in the organisation employees are, the stricter the policy. Such policies usually allow companies to transfer one or both employees to another department or change who they report to if there is a conflict of interest.
Relationship Policy Summary
In summary, handle office relationships with caution and care. Should a relationship come to light, it’s important that you take time to deal with it. Bear in mind that your early action will limit the effects for both your company and employees. And remember, any disciplinary or dismissal decision cannot be based on discriminatory factors such as gender or sexual orientation.
To be clear, there is no legal requirement on employees to inform their employer about a relationship with a colleague, unless it forms part of the company’s employment policy. Smart employers adopt a written policy on personal relationships at work. Such policies are seen as a very sensible precaution. Do you need help with creating a relationship policy?
If you are dealing with any issues regarding managing relationships at work, it is always best to outsource for specific employment contract advice from HR consultancy services. For a no-obligation chat, call The HR Team in Poole on: 01202 701 414 or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The HR Team provides cost effective, industry leading HR support and employment contract advice. With in-depth knowledge and a wealth of experience in dealing with complex HR issues, our team is here to help your team.