Romantic Relationships in the Workplace

Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s Chief Executive found himself in a bit of a pickle last week after he was fired for dating a fellow employee. Despite there being no suggestion of harassment or a non-consensual relationship, Easterbrook was dismissed because McDonald’s have a policy banning romantic relationships in the workplace which might lead to a conflict of interest.

With the prominence of campaigns like “MeToo” and increased awareness of the risk of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace conduct, an event like this is a good opportunity to consider how businesses should manage the subject of workplace relationships.

Romance at work: policies and procedures

The first thing to note is that there are no explicit laws prohibiting or governing relationships in the UK workplace.  Some figures suggest that up to half of UK employees have had a relationship with a work colleague at some point in their career, with many keeping it secret from their bosses.  In the absence of specific laws, potential risks that a business should consider are:

  • Conflicts of interest as a result of the relationship, including bias in performance reviews or promotions.  This bias could be favourable during a relationship or unfavourable if the relationship breaks down
  • Inappropriate behaviour in the office environment
  • Potential for sexual harassment, unwanted advances or non-consensual relationships

While these risks mean that some companies ban relationships outright, the majority of businesses consider it reasonable to treat staff like adults and to allow workplace relationships.  In this case the best approach is to have sensible policies and procedures for notifying relationships to management and making it clear what is and is not acceptable behaviour.

A notification system means that managers can put in place relevant safeguards to minimise the risks outlined above.  It may be necessary in some cases to make changes to the organisational structure, a common one being changing reporting lines to avoid potential conflicts of interest and minimise any impact the ups and downs of a personal relationship might have on the day to day workings of the office.

Another good idea is to provide staff training on the topic.  Many employers give training on the values of their business and how they expect staff to behave, often at induction.  This could sensibly include the subject of workplace relationships, whether they are allowed and what standards are expected.

How we can help

If you are an employer seeking advice on how to manage romantic relationships in your workplace, or an employee who needs advice on a workplace relationship, the specialist employment law team at Backhouse Solicitors are here to help.  We can provide policies, procedures and staff training to keep a business working smoothly as well as troubleshooting those tricky problems as they occur.

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