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Should you ban personal relationships at work?

ITV has issued new guidelines to staff saying that sexual, romantic or close relationships or friendships with co-workers must be declared at the earliest opportunity.

It is estimated that over a quarter of employees meet their long-term partner at work and that more than half have had a personal relationship or office romance with a work colleague. Personal relationships at work are normal and, in many cases, they will not present a problem.

Create a policy on relationships at work that balances your employees' right to a private life against the company's right to protect its business interests.

Your policy should aim to introduce a culture of openness where employees feel that they can come forward and be honest about their relationships at work, regardless of their sexual orientation. This could be done by including an acknowledgement that personal relationships at work are normal and an encouragement for all employees to be open and honest about them without fear of reprisals.

How can you introduce a personal relationship at work policy?

Conduct

Consider a prohibition at work on intimate behaviour, such as holding hands, kissing, other close physical contact and discussions of a sexual nature. Remind employees not to allow a personal relationship with a colleague to influence their conduct at work.

Conflict of interest

Consider requiring employees to declare any relationship in confidence to a superior as soon as reasonably practicable where the relationship may give rise to a real or perceived conflict of interest, trust issue or breach of confidentiality. This is particularly important where the relationship is between a manager and one of their direct reports, because of the risk that the manager may afford them more favourable treatment than other members of staff, or indeed less favourable treatment if the relationship subsequently breaks down.

Grievance and harassment policies

Having effective grievance and anti-harassment procedures will also be important. If a relationship ends and this creates problems at work, the aggrieved employee needs to know that they can raise a grievance or make a complaint under the anti-harassment procedure and that their complaint will be taken seriously and dealt with promptly. Show that you have made every effort to deal with allegations of sex discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace.

Blanket bans

You may consider placing a blanket ban on any form of personal relationship between work colleagues. However, that is unrealistic and unlikely to be enforceable if challenged before an employment tribunal. All employees have the right to a private life and employers should be careful how much they interfere with this right.

Relationships with clients, customers, contractors and suppliers

In addition to office romances, it is also possible that an employee may have a personal relationship with one of your clients, customers, contractors or suppliers. This should not present a problem, unless the individual is a professional adviser to the third party, for example in a doctor and patient, or lawyer and client. However, there is the risk of obligations of confidentiality being broken, and the potential for an employee to abuse their level of authority or exert undue influence over the other party, or vice versa, for example by favouring the particular supplier or by reducing the client's charges. Provide guidance to cover this situation.

Consider guidelines covering personal relationships between employees and clients, customers, contractors or suppliers.

Dismissal

Some employers may be intolerant of office romances and may wish to dismiss one or both of the parties involved. The risks here are claims for unfair dismissal and/or sex or sexual orientation discrimination. Public authorities may also face claims of a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private and family life).

To dismiss one or both employees involved just because they have embarked on a personal relationship in the workplace is likely to be held to be unfair, even if the policy guidelines explicitly reserve the right to dismiss in this scenario. There are very few circumstances in which you can fairly dismiss an employee solely because of their relationship. You risk a discrimination claim if you dismiss one or both of the employees. Depending on the circumstances, discrimination could arise on the grounds of sex, marriage civil partnership, or sexual orientation.

Dismissal should be your last resort and only if you have evidence that a personal relationship has had a serious impact on your business, for example, there has been a serious breach of confidentiality by one of the parties or examples of clear favouritism. In this scenario, the impact that the relationship had on your business by breaching trust or breaching confidentiality would be your reason for dismissal, not the relationship itself.

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