Relationships at Work: What’s the harm?

Many people will meet their life partner at work. An online study in 2017 found that 15% meet their significant other at work.  Yet, the McDonald’s CEO, Steve Easterbrook, has allegedly been fired for having a consensual relationship with a fellow employee (albeit reportedly walking away with a staggering settlement sum) and the issue has been thrown into the spotlight with many taking the view that they didn’t realise it wasn’t acceptable.

The starting point is that there are no general legal rules that prohibit relationships at work.  So, in many workplaces it may be that it isn’t not acceptable. It is very common for US businesses to have ‘relationship’ policies in place (less so in the UK). The issue at McDonald’s was that company policy provided that management staff were explicitly prohibited from having relationships with subordinate staff.  It seems the CEO breached this policy and even went so far as to recognise his own “poor judgement” in doing so.

This begs the question as to whether employers should seek to regulate personal relationships at work?  Firstly, what are the concerns about permitting relationships in the workplace?

Firstly, there is the issue of bias.  There is a concern that an employee may receive preferential treatment if they are in a relationship with a colleague of a higher seniority (certainly where they are in their direct chain of management).  Although it may not exist, there may be a perception that it does and this may cause problems in selective processes such as promotion, redundancy and/or performance appraisals.  In other words, colleagues may feel they are treated more/less favourably.  This can also work the other way where things go wrong in the relationship.  Aside from the difficulty in dealing with the ‘fall-out’, one of the employees in the former relationship may feel they are consequently treated less favourably and, again, this may affect selective processes in the workplace.

It is certainly advisable that the clearer the employer’s stance is on relationships at work, the easier it will be to deal with such issues if/when they arise.  A written policy would be an employer’s best defence if problems did arise as it would set out what an employee can expect in such circumstances and/or what may happen as a result. Without a policy, the revelation of a relationship at work is not a reason to discipline an employee in itself although it may lead to action if there is subsequently inappropriate behaviour.  However, if there is a policy in place and it is consequently breached, then there may be a fair reason for disciplinary action.

A policy will therefore assist in directing employees as to what is acceptable at work and what is not, and what may happen if guidelines are breached.  It will also guide managers in dealing with situations they become aware of to ensure that matters are dealt with consistently as again this could give rise to potential further issues.  It is vital that employees know what is and isn’t acceptable.

A personal relationship at work is a sensitive matter and it is certainly a “grey” area as to what will be considered a relationship.  A policy would again assist with what the employer will consider to be a relationship to ensure that employees are aware of where the boundaries lie.

It’s important that any policy drafted for this purpose is tailored to the organisation by looking at the impact that a relationship at work could actually have, if any. It may just be that only relationships within direct reporting will be considered in appropriate or, where an organisation is much smaller, that it won’t be acceptable full stop.  This something we can assist in drafting in accordance with an organisation’s needs.

Laura Kelleher, Solicitor

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