How should HR and employers approach managing or setting boundaries for personal relationships at work?
It is important to remember that personal relationships at work may not be limited to sexual or romantic relationships, but can also include family relationships, very close friendships, and close business, financial or commercial relationships, which can complicate dynamics and wider relations in the workplace.
With such a broad definition, it would generally be regarded as onerous and unrealistic to interfere with an employee’s rights to a private life by restricting or imposing an outright ban on personal relationships at work. Employers are therefore encouraged to accept that such relationships are part and parcel of being a business owner. Indeed, with the average person spending 90,000 working hours over the course of their lifetime, it is highly likely romantic relationships will begin at work.
But there are practical measures you can take to manage any potential risk, and by implementing policies you can ensure your workforce knows where they stand, and if relationships deteriorate, how any prevailing situation will be dealt with.
Challenges of personal relationships at work
Workplace relationships have the potential to be detrimental to a business, in the absence of clear rules or boundaries or effective management. In particular:
Conflict of interest
If your employee has a personal relationship with one of your close business associates, this can create a conflict with the professional duty they owe to you. Common examples include employees who have their own business on the side or hold second jobs with other employers.
Subjective and unfair recruitment decisions
If not managed appropriately, personal relationships could lead to allegations of unfair recruitment decisions. In order to avoid such issues arising, if an employee is involved in recruitment and has a personal or family connection to the person being interviewed, then they should remove themselves from the recruitment process and have no further involvement.
Preferential and inconsistent treatment of employees
If you have two or more employees who are related or have a personal relationship within the same team, you should consider the potential impact or perceived impact on other team members and working practices. This is particularly important where one reports to the other. For example, consider how annual leave requests are handled, how shift patterns operate, and other sign-off processes within your business, such as expenses.
Employers will want to avoid situations where an employee has abused their position of trust and confidentiality due to a close relationship. Those who have personal relationships should not work together at all if a breach of confidentiality may be obtained from the overlap of personal and professional relationships.
Each workplace will have their own set of rules and standards as to how their employees should behave at work. However, there are occasions where personal relationships sour and the impact of such a breakdown can infiltrate the workplace, resulting in adverse behaviours being displayed by one or either of the parties.
Bullying and harassment
Bullying includes unwanted physical contact or assault, and also includes verbal bullying, such as making threatening or insulting comments including comments intended to undermine, belittle, embarrass, or humiliate. There can be situations where personal relationships degenerate into such behaviours and this can be seriously detrimental, not only to the workplace, but also to your business.
If a personal relationship has broken down and one of the parties is acting inappropriately, you risk a grievance being raised. On the flip side, if you have introduced measures to address conflict between parties who have personal relationships but have done so in a discriminatory or unfair way, you should be mindful this too can lead to grievances being raised.
Measures for handling personal relationships at work
Once aware of some of the challenges you face with personal relationships at work, it is important to consider what measures you can take to address and reduce the potential risks. Worthy of note, any practical step taken to manage personal relationships should be fair and reasonable, and not discriminate on the grounds of a “protected characteristic” (gender, marital status, age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex). Examples of measures you can take include:
Consider the introduction of an employee declaration form where job applicants are asked to give details of any personal relationships they have with existing employees within the company. This allows you to take reasonable and appropriate steps to safeguard the business, although it should not be a bar to employment.
A requirement that existing staff report any personal relationships. Again, this allows you to take reasonable and appropriate steps to manage such relationships.
Restricting those employees involved in recruitment and selection who have a personal relationship with the person being interviewed, whether that is for an external or internal role.
Meet with the employee(s) following notification of a relationship to consider and discuss how the relationship may impact the workplace and deal with any potential conflicts of interest, agreeing appropriate measures where necessary.
If you have two employees within the same team, consider meeting with them to consider the impact or perceived impact the relationship may have on their colleagues, identifying measures that can be introduced to avoid any resulting issues.
Where a relationship exists between a manager and an employee, consider an alternative line manager or transferring one of them to another part of the business. The alternative role must be suitable and of the same level of seniority, and transfers must not discriminate on any of the protected characteristics.
If you do decide to move an employee to an alternative role, consider if there are any additional measures that need to be taken to safeguard the business.
For any data captured regarding personal relationships at work, there must be a genuine need to do so, and its purpose must be to identify and manage measures in place in order to ameliorate risk. You must ensure that any date is stored correctly and kept private and confidential, with only those who require access to it for the purpose of administering and managing the information. This data would also be disclosable if you receive a subject access request from a data subject.
In the UK there are no specific laws governing personal relationships at work, however there is broader employment law such as the Equality Act 2010 and the Protection of Harassment Act 1997 that may apply when managing such workplace relationships. The Equality Act prevents direct and indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation and the Protection of Harassment Act 1997 allows claims to be brought in the civil court for harassment.
In the context of personal relationships at work, there may be issues of sex discrimination or harassment, particularly if the relationship breaks down. Sex discrimination can occur where a female employee has been asked to leave over a male employee because of their relationship or the breakdown of it. And if an employee believes they have experienced harassment because of their gender, this could also amount to discrimination. In extreme cases, employees may be entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal in an employment tribunal.
If you are addressing issues arising from personal relationships through your disciplinary process, ensure you have the justification to do so. For example, you must be able to reasonably show that the consequence of the relationship has had a detrimental effect on the business. Mishandling a disciplinary process, or continuing without reasonable justification for doing so, could render any action unfair, including fighting a case for unfair dismissal. And it must be said that depending on the severity of the situation, dismissing an employee could be seen as Draconian and cause ill-feeling with other employees within the workforce.
You can mitigate the risk of an employment tribunal claim by remembering the key principles when managing personal relationships, such as:
- Focussing on the impact the relationship is having, not the people involved
- Dealing fairly and consistently with all those involved
You may remember the case of Steve Easterbrook, former CEO of McDonalds who was fired after they found out he had had a consensual relationship with an employee, in breach of a policy for senior members of staff. Whilst everyone is entitled to a private life, it is sensible to prepare a policy for what happens when complications arise which expose your business to claims of harassment and sex discrimination if the relationship ends acrimoniously. McDonalds adopted a strict no relationship policy for senior members of staff and because it was breached took disciplinary action resulting in the dismissal.
Relationship at work policies, sometimes referred to as a “love contract”, whilst not particularly common in the UK, yet, can be seen as a judicious precaution, allowing those concerned to confirm their relationship is consensual whilst also taking into account your anti-harassment rules and policies.
Having a relationship at work policy
An appropriate policy setting out the standards for what is expected and what is and is not acceptable behaviour and details actions to be taken if problems arise which will help you to ensure that such situations are handled effectively and consistently.
A written policy also assists line managers to understand their responsibilities and role in managing personal relationships within their team and outlines steps they can legitimately take to appropriately manage such situations as and when they arise.
Setting out the policy’s purpose and scope is a vital part in ensuring your employees support the rules contained within it. Knowing why you are introducing such measures will also bolster and underpin any action you may need to take for a breach of the rules.
Your policy should consider factors such as:
- Definitions of what constitutes personal relationships
- What happens if the policy is breached
- Consequences of a breach in policy
- Dealing with unwanted personal conduct, or contact following the relationship breaking down
- Managing personal relationships at work, such as behaviours, recruitment, management issues, and conflicts of interest
If a complaint comes before the employment tribunal, they will want to know whether you had a policy in place informing employees of expected behaviours, and that they were clear on the consequences of any breach, that the rules were sufficiently communicated across the business and correctly implemented. That said, in most cases relationships in the workplace cause no problems at all for a business, and they can in fact bring many benefits, such as:
- Increased personal interest in the business’s success
- Greater commitment towards the business
- Attaining wider business knowledge because of employees discussing their roles and issues with one another
Easing the search for employees and reducing its cost by introducing a partner or family member to the business (although this must be as part of a consistent and fair selection process)
- Recommendations from existing staff will usually be for like-minded people who are more likely to fit into the culture of your business
- Reduces costs for couples, such as halving travelling to work expenses, or saves doubling-up on medical insurance
- Helps to make you a visible and recommended local employer by recruiting individuals from the same locality.
It will be beneficial in terms of workplace performance and morale, and legal risk management, to consider how personal work relationships may affect your business and that you can be satisfied you have done everything within your power to accommodate personal relationships at work. Clarity and encouraging a culture of honesty and openness are key principles in ensuring both you and your employee are protected at all times.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists work with UK employers on all aspects of workforce management, including issues surrounding personal relationships at work. Working closely with our specialists in employment law, we offer a comprehensive solution to reduce legal risks while looking after the interests of the business. For advice on a specific issue, speak to our experts today.
Personal relationships at work FAQs
What is a personal relationship at work?
Personal relationships at work include family relationships, romantic relationships, very close friendships, and close business, financial and commercial relationships.
Can I be fired for having a relationship with a co-worker?
While being in a personal relationship with someone at work doesn’t mean you can be fired, if your relationship (or the fallout from its breakdown) causes disruption at work or harassment for the other party, then disciplinary action may be taken which could potentially lead to dismissal.
Last updated: 31 March 2021