Publish date

27 November 2019

Relationships at work

Pardon the bun but there has been a flurry of media coverage regarding McDonald’s decision to dismiss its CEO, Steve Easterbrook after a saucy but allegedly consensual relationship with another employee.

It is not uncommon for American organisations to explicitly ban workplace romances and enforce those provisions in their UK operations. The Guardian asserts that more than 75% of companies forbid relationships between individuals and someone in their reporting lines. In this situation, McDonald’s have such a policy in place explicitly banning relationships with individuals who are in ‘direct or indirect reporting’ lines. It is not too difficult to see that there would be an ‘indirect’ reporting line between any employee and the CEO.

However, commentators have called into question whether the dismissal of an employee, who enters into a consensual relationship with a colleague, would be fair under more ‘typical’ circumstances. Further, that a blanket ban on romances at work and disciplining employees for their choice of partner could be an infringement of individuals’ right to a private life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998. After all, it is a fact of life that we spend a lot of time with our colleagues and sometimes romance blossoms.

Our thoughts

If we do not keep a lid on them, romances at work can cause issues such as:-

  • loss of productivity
  • conflicts of interests
  • claims such as harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination etc
  • fall out when a relationship ends and repercussions across the workplace.

Reading The Guardian’s article, in the link below, it conjures up a number of images of high powered individuals wielding power over their subordinates and draws inferences to the #MeToo campaign. We consider that it is perhaps a little early to be throwing around such comments when it has been reported, elsewhere, that Mr Easterbrook was in a consensual relationship. That being said, we agree that it is positive that large organisations are taking their responsibilities seriously.

However, we have to ask the question: whether blanket bans on relationships work? For example, according to The Guardian’s article, despite the policy that McDonald’s have in place, there have been numerous claims of harassment and victimisation from workers following advances and/or relationships at McDonald’s.

It follows then that “it would be a better use of a company’s time to address the real cases of harassment in their workplaces, rather than hope it all goes away with a strict ban on fraternization”. So to this end and acknowledging that relationships at work are a fact of life (whether good or bad) it would be beneficial to:-

  • set standards of expectations through various policies, such as:-
    • a relationship at work policy that could cover items such as public displays of affection, which may make others feel awkward and waste company time; and
    • anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy which could cover sexual harassment.
  • be clear of the repercussions if individuals breach these policies, for example through investigations which may lead to disciplinary processes under the disciplinary policy;
  • provide training:-
    • to your employees on what is and is not acceptable (under your policies) and who to contact in the event of an issue; and
      your managers to help them strike the right balance between an individual’s right to private life and the broader interests of your business. By training your managers, they will be able to spot potential issues and deal with them more promptly and effectively.By providing training, you will also then start building your argument in the event that a discrimination claim is made and contend that you did everything you could do prevent the discrimination taking place;
  • consider your options, if a relationship at work sours, as if it was any other dispute between colleagues, such as workplace mediation, changing reporting lines / location of work etc. but always remember to treat both sides even-handedly; and
  • be wary at social work gatherings, particularly when alcohol is involved as this is where some relationships (and claims) are formed, particularly in the Christmas period(!).

So to be clear there is nothing under UK law that requires individuals to disclose their relationships and/or prohibit forming relationships at work. Therefore, disciplining and/or dismissing someone for choosing a partner at work is likely to be unfair and/or a contravention of the right to a private life. Capability or conduct issues, arising from relationships which are capable of being evidenced are much more likely to be fair. Consequently, by having the right policies and training in place, we can strike the right balance.

If you have any questions and/or would be interested in discussions about relationships at work and/or getting a policy in place, please do not hesitate to contact the employment team on 01322 623700.

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