Managing Relationships at Work to Reduce Legal Risk


As most of us spend more waking hours at work than we do at home, the importance of maintaining positive working relationships, and minimising interpersonal conflict, cannot be underestimated. This is often the key to a happy, productive and collaborative workforce.

Below we provide some practical tips for managers and leaders on managing relationships at work, from effective dispute resolution to ways in which workplace conflict can be prevented in the first place —including advice on keeping employees engaged in their work and loyal to your business.

We also provide some guidance on managing close friendships and romantic relationships at work where, given how much time co-workers spend together, developing personal bonds is perfectly natural and commonplace, yet professionalism must still be maintained.


Why do workplace disputes arise and what are the risks involved?

Workplace disputes can arise for a whole host of different reasons, from issues directly between the employer and employee, perhaps over pay or working conditions, to professional and/or personal conflict between staff and management, or as between co-workers.

Very often disputes at work can arise between certain individuals as a result of personality clashes, where people can have very different perspectives on how to approach certain tasks, or even how they interact and communicate with each other, depending on their age, sex, background and upbringing. Workplace disputes can also commonly arise from various forms of unfair treatment, including bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation.

Regardless of the nature of the workplace dispute, if the matter goes unchecked or is ineptly handled, this can create serious problems for your business, including:

  • poor employee engagement
  • low individual and team morale
  • a lack of collaborative and team working
  • reduced performance and lost productivity
  • poor employee health and wellbeing
  • a damaged employer brand
  • high rates of absenteeism and staff turnover

The aim is therefore to resolve any workplace dispute as quickly and effectively as possible, to minimise the risk of any or all of these problems arising, and to prevent the matter escalating into something much more serious. In some cases, unresolved conflict can lead to the loss of valuable employees. This can also result in costly and time-consuming legal proceedings where, even if an employer is not directly responsible for the root problem, in the eyes of the law they may still be liable if all reasonable steps haven’t been taken to resolve the matter.

For example, if you fail to address allegations of workplace bullying or harassment, and this form of unacceptable conduct continues, this could be classed as a breach of your statutory duty as an employer to ensure the health and wellbeing of your staff. An employee may even feel forced to resign in cases where you’ve failed to resolve serious conflict at work, potentially resulting in a claim for constructive dismissal for breach of the duty of mutual trust and confidence implied into all contracts of employment.


What is the best way of dealing with workplace disputes?

There is no single or set strategy for dealing with workplace disputes, as much will depend on the nature of the issues, how this has been brought to your attention and the parties involved. More often than not, differences of opinion and minor disagreements will be sorted out without the need for intervention on your part. However, once you’ve been made aware of any ongoing conflict, as the employer, steps must be taken to resolve this.

In some cases, if the matter is relatively minor, you may be able to resolve the issue on an informal basis. However, if this isn’t effective, or where the allegations involved are especially serious in the first instance, you may need to address the matter more formally. Below we briefly examine both options for dealing with workplace disputes:


Informal dispute resolution

In many instances, conflict and confrontation at work can be dealt with informally. Provided employees feel able to approach their line manager or someone from HR, minor concerns or issues can usually be raised and resolved through a verbal discussion with those involved, without the need for further or more formal intervention. If the matter relates to someone’s line manager, they should be able to discuss their concerns with another member of the management team or an appropriate person within your organisation.

However, even where a problem or complaint is raised informally, this should always be treated seriously to avoid the matter escalating into a formal grievance or tribunal claim. Your staff should feel able to raise any issues without fear of reprisals, or concerns over whether or not any action will be taken. By dealing with all such matters promptly, fairly, objectively and confidentially, this can help to settle differences at an early stage for all affected parties.

You should keep a clear written record of the matters raised and steps taken, including any action plan moving forward. Even where an amicable resolution has been reached, the matter should also be reviewed after a set period of time to ensure the problem is not ongoing.


Formal dispute resolution

Serious or recurring workplace disputes that cannot be resolved informally may require the use of either a grievance or disciplinary procedure, or both, for example, where a grievance results in a finding of misconduct on the part of another employee. In some cases, you may need to first deal with an employee’s grievance surrounding the source of conflict, taking disciplinary action against anyone responsible for this where there’s a case to answer.

A grievance procedure is a formal way for an employee to raise a problem or complaint to their employer about an issue at work, including problematic relationships with a line manager or co-worker, whilst a disciplinary procedure allows an employer to formally address issues over an individual’s conduct or performance.

As a matter of best practice, your grievance and disciplinary procedures should be set out clearly and comprehensively in writing, making these easily accessible to all members of staff. Typically, these will be located in either an employee handbook or on the staff intranet.

What constitutes a fair procedure will depend on all the circumstances involved, as well as the size of your business and the resources available to you when investigating a grievance or disciplinary issue. The statutory Code of Practice provided by ACAS on disciplinary and grievance procedures sets out the basic requirements of fairness, providing the standard of reasonable behaviour to be applied in most cases.

As a minimum, this means there should always be:

  • a prompt and thorough investigation into the matters alleged
  • a written invitation to a hearing, setting out the individual’s right to be accompanied
  • an opportunity for the individual to put their case
  • a written explanation of the outcome, without unreasonable delay
  • an opportunity to appeal against the outcome
  • a record kept of the grievance or disciplinary process, and the decision-making applied


What is the best way of preventing workplace disputes?

When bringing together a number of different people, some with opposing views or just different ways of doing things, workplace disputes are inevitable. However, there are ways in which the potential for conflict, either between management and staff, or as between co-workers, can be reduced. By putting in place some or all of the following practical tips on managing relationships at work, this can help to keep any conflict to a minimum:


Foster a positive working environment

Where there is trust and mutual respect between management and staff, and as between co-workers, this is likely to minimise the chances of any conflict arising in the first place. A supportive working environment can greatly enhance a person’s experience of work and their overall wellbeing.

Implement clear and comprehensive workplace policies

These should include policies on equality and diversity, as well as harassment, bullying, discrimination and victimisation. It’s in every employer’s interests to promote a safe, healthy, inclusive and fair environment in which their staff can work and professional relationships can thrive.

Organise regular team-building activities and social events

In this way you can help to build positive professional relationships and encourage collaborative working. When staff work well together and like each other, conflict is far less likely to arise. This, in turn, often equates to increased performance and productivity.

Promote good communication and active listening

This applies to all levels of your business, from management through to junior members of staff. Everyone should be encouraged to openly communicate and be transparent. They should also feel confident that their concerns will be heard, treated seriously and appropriate action taken.

Demonstrate your appreciation

Managing relationships at work is not just about reacting or responding to problems, but proactively showing how much you value your staff. By ensuring that your employees feel recognised for the work that they do, even through just verbal recognition, this can help to create a positive employer-employee relationship.

Be open to flexible working arrangements

By ensuring that your staff have a healthy work-life balance, where they’re able to fit in personal and family commitments around their working arrangements, this will minimise their individual stress levels. This should not only help to promote a positive employer-employee relationship, but positive working relationships in general, as everyone will feel happier and committed to their work.

Provide line managers with training on dealing with workplace conflict

As differences of opinion, disagreements and disputes are a fact of everyday working life, having trained managers to address any conflict at the earliest possible opportunity will prevent any issues from escalating into a formal grievance or tribunal claim.


What is the best way of managing personal relationships?

Having examined the potential for problems arising out of professional relationships at work, we now turn to the more sensitive matter of managing personal relationships, where romantic relationships in particular are often frowned upon by employers and kept secret by staff.

However, contrary to popular belief, those who have a personal relationship at work, whether this be a close friendship or romantic involvement, are actually more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and be much more engaged in their work. Some employers may have concerns that personal relationships can negatively impact an individual’s performance or productivity, but this is often quite the opposite, provided of course the relationship remains amicable. Having a friend or partner at work can make an individual feel supported by someone who understands their working environment and the office dynamics.

The key to effectively managing any personal relationship within the workplace is often not to ban or even frown upon these types of relationships, but simply to encourage staff to maintain a professional front. For example, public displays of affection, or even excluding co-workers because two team workers are best friends, should be discouraged. Given the importance of clear communication, it can often be a good idea to set out your rules and expectations within a workplace policy or employee handbook. In this way, the personal choices your staff make can be treated with respect, whilst setting appropriate boundaries within the workplace.


Need assistance?

DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants can help with all aspects of workforce management engagement. We provide expert guidance including training and coaching on best practice management approaches to help with handling workplace disputes, maximise performance and minimise legal risk. For help and advice, speak to our experts.


Managing relationships at work FAQs

What are relationship management skills?

Some of the most important relationship management skills include being able to clearly communicate, actively listen, to negotiate effectively, to work well with others and the ability to lead. These skills combined will make for a very effective manager.

What is good relationship management?

The best way of managing relationships at work will depend on the size and nature of your workforce, although key to creating positive working relationships is trust, mutual respect, fairness, open communication and active listening.

What is managing relationships in the workplace?

Managing relationships in the workplace is about promoting positive working relationships and minimising interpersonal conflict. This can cover anything from fostering a diverse and inclusive working environment to having in place effective dispute resolution procedures.

What are the 4 types of relationships?

The 4 types of relationships that most of us experience are family relationships, romantic relationships, friendships and working relationships. In some cases, there may be some overlap, for example, being best friends or even married to a co-worker.

Last updated: 3 November 2021 


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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