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Personal relationships in the workplace

Updated: Feb 16

The recent departure from McDonalds of the Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook after the disclosure of his relationship with an employee has focussed attention on the phenomenon of workplace relationships.

Given that it’s a statistical certainty somewhere in an organisation, employers can often find themselves at a loss as to how to handle a personal relationship between two workers. The disparity in seniority (as was the case with Easterbrook) and the #MeToo movement have added further complexity to what will already be a contentious area.

For some employers, the easy answer is to impose a ban on any form of personal relationship between work colleagues. However, this is likely to be unrealistic in practice. An employer will want to protect their legitimate business interests, but their employees are entitled to a private life.

Bearing this in mind, the most practical solution for employers will be to draw up some form of specific relationship policy. This can help to address those relationships which start to have an effect on employees’ work or the reputation of the business. A policy will enable the employer to make a clear stance that relationships are allowed between colleagues, with the understanding that they will not negatively influence the employee’s conduct in the workplace.

A policy can also help define what would be regarded as ‘inappropriate conduct’ and outline the disciplinary action that may result if the line is crossed. An employer may wish to impose a blanket ban on intimate behaviour – such as kissing, touching or holding hands – during working hours. It may be made a requirement that employees keep communications in the workplace professional, with emails and work telephones being solely used for business purposes.

Threats to confidentiality and data protection are also important to bear in mind. Employers should be attentive about employees disclosing confidential information to their partner when they work for the same organisation. The policy can be used to give clear directions to employees that disciplinary action may result if an employee were to go home and discuss confidential matters with their partner.

There may be concerns as to where the boundaries between initiating a relationship in the workplace and a case for sexual harassment apply. Where an employee takes a romantic interest in a colleague, it may not immediately amount to a sexual harassment claim if the employee were to ask the colleague out on a date. Even if the colleague does not feel the same way and says no, as long as the employee does not persist and accepts the rejection with good grace, this still may not amount to a sexual harassment allegation. However, the colleague could have a valid claim for sexual harassment if the employee persists even though the colleague has made their feelings clear.

Sexual harassment could also occur if someone uses a position of power to make sexual advances. For example, if a manager were to ask a junior employee out on a date in return for a promotion or pay rise – or the threat of negative consequences in the case of a refusal - then this can be construed as direct sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

If a relationship occurs where one of the employees has authority over the other, the employer may feel it is appropriate to move one of the involved employees. The policy could reserve the right when there is a conflict of interest to transfer one or both employees to another department, or to change their reporting lines. The employer should consider whether this is absolutely necessary and even if it is, the matter should be approached with caution and sensitivity. This should only be done in consultation with the employees and the employer must be aware that this may amount to changing the contractual terms of employment, so the employees may not have to agree to it.

Just as relationships can begin between two employees, they can also end and in some cases, that can be with a degree of acrimony. Employers should be aware that this will, in all likelihood, have an effect on the business. Absence rates may increase as a result of the end of the relationship and the employer should talk to the employee(s) about the relevant disciplinary procedures that may be taken as a consequence.

Similarly, grievances may be raised by either employee and, whilst each grievance should be investigated thoroughly and fairly, the employer should be aware of vexatious complaints. Rising tension in the workplace should be acknowledged and employees should be reminded of what conduct is expected of them. It may be best practice for employers to remind employees that bullying, harassment and victimisation will not be tolerated in the workplace. Victimisation is particularly important where one of the employees in the relationship had authority or decision-making powers over the other.

With any workplace policy, these rules should be applied to everyone at work, including directors, senior staff and managers. In addition, the rules should be applied to the same standard, regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation.


If, after reading this article, you feel you need to get a workplace relationship policy drafted and you want to make sure it’s legally compliant and fit for purpose, why not talk to our rradarstation advisors? rradarstation is a resource available through the AXA MLP where policyholders can access rradar’s legal advisory team over the phone or by email and web gateway that provides over 2,000 articles, step-by-step guidance sheets, forms, sample letters and templates to download relating to running your business/organisation.

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