Relationships in the Workplace

McDonald’s Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook has recently been dismissed after it emerged that he had a relationship with an employee.

This has sparked much debate over the appropriateness of workplace personal relationships and how employers should address the issue in practice.

Employers should be mindful that they may face claims for discrimination should they be putting people at a disadvantage due to certain protected characteristics, for example, sex or sexual orientation. Should a female be treated differently to a male in similar circumstances, then she may have a claim and this could prove costly for your business as our article on the cost of discrimination highlights. Employers should deal sensitively and even-handedly with both partners in these circumstances and our expert HR consultants are on hand to advise you on dealing with such matters.

Of further concern is the balance that must be struck by an employer in dealing with personal relationships in work, whilst allowing the employee their right to a private life as is afforded under Article 8 of the European Charter on Human Rights: Right to respect for private and family life. An outright ban on romantic involvement at work is likely to be considered disproportionate, however, a requirement that staff are to disclose relationships, in order that the employer may take steps to avoid any conflicts of interest, may be considered proportionate.

In many cases, a personal relationship between staff will not interfere with work and it is important that staff are respected to conduct themselves professionally. There should be mutual trust and confidence in the employment relationship; should an employer fundamentally breach this implied term; they may face a claim of constructive unfair dismissal.

However, personal relationships at work have the potential to be a serious management concern and a policy to address the matter is advisable. The following issues may be of serious management concern:

  • Legal risks regarding discrimination and harassment
  • Risk to the confidentiality of business information
  • Actual or perceived bias in recruitment/promotion/appraisals/discipline, especially when staff in a personal relationship are directly reporting to or subordinate to the other
  • Adverse impacts on team dynamics and team morale

Of considerable concern will be subordinate personal relationships in the workplace and an employer may wish to include, as a matter of policy, that staff must inform HR of such relationships should they arise. Some employers may decide to agree a plan with the couple

to minimise the impact of the personal relationship on the business. This is likely to involve one or both of the partners transferring where possible or removing the responsibility of the manager in certain circumstances. However, each case must be dealt with on the facts and there are considerable risks in making such changes. As such, it is important that you seek specialist advice on the issue.

If you have any concerns or would like free advice on this topic or any employment law matter, please call 0800 015 2519 or register for free access to HR24 Dashboard.

Author: Editorial Team

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