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Managing personal relationships in the workplace

View profile for Philip Richardson
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Employment law update 2018: employment tribunal

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. In 2018, the jobs website, TotalJobs found that 22% of people met their partner at work and 2 in 3 UK workers would be willing to date a colleague.

The issue of relationships at work has been thrust into the spotlight recently with the case of Steve Easterbook, the former British CEO of the fast food giant, McDonalds. Mr Easterbook was fired last year after his employer found he had a consensual relationship with an employee, breaching the company’s policy for senior members of staff. A later investigation, prompted by a tip-off from another staff member, found the British executive had three additional relationships with staff, about which he lied to the board. The company is now seeking to recover Mr Easterbrook’s pay-off or settlement agreement, reportedly worth $40m (£35m), arguing it was obtained fraudulently.

Of course everyone is entitled to a private life and many employers are realistic about the prospect of colleagues finding love at work. However, pursuing a personal relationship in the workplace can sometimes cause complications and many companies are keen to put safeguards in place to protect staff members and ultimately themselves.  Work relationships can raise a legal risk that an employer is exposed to – particularly claims of harassment and sex discrimination if the relationship ends suddenly and acrimoniously.

Some large employers, evidenced by McDonalds and the case of Mr Easterbrook, adopt a written policy on personal relationships at work. A policy like this will typically allow relationships between colleagues as long as that relationship isn’t at the detriment of the employees’ conduct at work. The higher up in the organisation you are, the more severely the policy is applied, and in Mr Easterbrook’s case, it was wasn’t permitted. These policies usually allow companies to transfer one or both employees to another department or change their reporting lines if there is a conflict of interest and in serious cases, where a breach has occurred, disciplinary steps can be taken.

One example of this is what is known as a 'personal relationships at work policy' or a ‘love contract’ as they are sometimes referred to. While these aren’t hugely common here in the UK yet, they are being seen as a sensible precaution, allowing those concerned to represent that their relationship is entirely consensual whilst acknowledging the employer’s anti-harassment policies and rules. 

To be clear, there is no strict obligation on employees to inform their employer about a relationship with a colleague, unless of course it forms part of the company’s employment policy. However, if a relationship does become more serious and other employees start talking, it can be sensible to have a discussion, at an appropriate time, informing a manager about a new relationship. Often things can get complicated when intertwining the personal and professional, so clear and open dialogue with a manager is usually welcomed rather than being heard through the office rumour mill.

For employers, it’s important to handle office relationships with care and sensitivity. If a relationship comes to light which forms a breach of company rules, it’s important that an employer takes time to address it set against the specifics of its policies. Critically, any decision on disciplinary or dismissal cannot be based on any discriminatory factors such as gender or sexual orientation. Also, depending on the severity of the situation, firing an employee could be seen as draconian and cause more issues in the future with other employees.