Personal relationships at work

Personal relationships at work which may affect employers can include those between spouses, civil partners, common-law partners, family members (fathers, sons, sisters, brothers) and others. The type of relationship can include very close friendships, sexual relationships, close family members and commercial relationships. Many organisations employ staff with family connections. Also, as we spend more time at work, in environments which are more diverse, and where socialising with colleagues is usual, personal relationships amongst the workforce may be more common.

A recent, high profile news story is about the McDonald’s Chief Executive who was dismissed after a relationship with an employee.  McDonald’s confirmed that the former Chief Executive had been dismissed after its board decided he had violated company policy and “demonstrated poor judgement involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee”.  The former Chief Executive, who was divorced, acknowledge that the relationship with an employee was a mistake and accepted a settlement with the company that included him agreeing not to work for a competitor for at least two years.

HR guidance on workplace relationships

Often, workplace relationships cause no problems whatsoever for the employer. In fact there can be benefits to having a close link between fellow employees. For example:

  • Greater commitment towards the business, due to their increased personal interest in its success
  • Wider business knowledge attained, as the people involved discuss their roles and daily issues with each other
  • Easing recruitment search and reducing cost by introducing a partner or family member to the business (as part of a fair and consistent selection process)
  • Often recommendations from existing staff will be of people who are like-minded and more likely to fit into your culture quickly
  • Reduced costs for couples, such as relocation or family private medical insurance
  • Helping make you a visible local employer of choice, by recruiting people from the same locality.

In some situations personal relationships are a requirement of the job, for example partners who are running a pub or post office or a housekeeper and handyman working at a care home. However, in some cases personal relationships can result in a situation becoming untenable, particularly if a relationship turns sour or, for example where one person is responsible for managing, appraising and remunerating the other. An appropriate policy, which sets the standards for what is and is not acceptable behaviour and which describes the actions to be taken if problems arise will help to ensure that situations are handled effectively.

Situations where action may be appropriate

Employers must remember that they have no right to interfere with their employees’ personal relationships but they do have a right to take action when a relationship at work has a detrimental effect on their business. There are many examples of where the business could be adversely affected:

  • Someone’s performance deteriorates because of a relationship at work (especially if it goes wrong)
  • The management of an individual becomes difficult because of their relationship (for example where a supervisor has difficulty dealing with the boss’s son-in-law)
  • A relationship results in the parties acting unprofessionally at work (or outside work if their actions could bring the business into disrepute)
  • There is risk of fraud if a relationship is between two people with responsibility for financial matters
  • Business with clients is jeopardised or compromised by rival business interests
  • Other employees become disgruntled by promotions and rewards viewed as biased due to a personal relationship
  • Partners and family members struggle with keeping private company information to themselves
  • Arguments or separation of personal relationships can result in uncomfortable working conditions for all.

In managing employees who have personal relationships at work, employers could be at risk of claims to an employment tribunal. The key principles to remember are:

  • To focus on the impact the relationship is having, not the people involved, and
  • To deal fairly with all those involved.

Policies on personal relationships

It is wise to justify any policy on personal relationships by explaining how such relationships could have a detrimental effect on your business (particularly in terms of minimising the risk of perceived or actual undue influence or favouritism e.g. allocation of shifts, overtime etc).

Dealing with personal relationships

If you have a situation where two existing employees become involved with one another, care needs to be taken to act reasonably in dealing with both parties fairly and equally. It could be unlawful to dismiss one but not the other. It could also be unlawful to transfer one because of his/her gender (e.g. by transferring a female sales rep to another branch but not transferring the male sales rep) but it would not be unlawful to select one of them because of their role (e.g. by transferring a female secretary because it is feasible for her to work in another department and leaving a senior manager in the same department because it is not feasible for him to work elsewhere in the organisation). However, to have a policy stating that in such situations, the most junior member of staff will be transferred may indirectly discriminate against women if the senior management of the business is predominantly male.

Remember to consider the situation rather than the individuals involved, focus on their roles and what is legitimate and reasonable action from a business perspective and always act fairly and consistently.

Legal considerations

It is unlawful to discriminate against anyone on grounds of a protected characteristic, including sex, sexual orientation or marital status or civil partnership. This means that you cannot treat someone less favourably because they are married or in a civil partnership and you cannot treat one partner in a relationship less favourably than the other because they are, for example, female.

It is, however, legitimate to have a policy stating that you will not employ partners or spouses of existing employees, as to do so is not discriminating against an individual because they are married or in a civil partnership, but not accepting them because of who they are married to.

The US method of issuing ‘love contracts’ to staff, who agree to communicate any rifts or relationship problems and not to involve the employer in legal proceedings after a bad split, do not comply with European law and thus will not protect an employer in the UK.

Related cases:  effect of the relationship on the business

Fordham v Huntingdonshire Disctrict Council

In Fordham v Huntingdonshire District Council, Mr Fordham married a fellow Housing Officer in a team of only three. When it came to annual leave for the honeymoon, this resulted in two out of three of the team being on leave, which was against the council’s policy. His subsequent transfer to a different location was found not to be discrimination on grounds of marriage, as the decision was based on who he was married to, rather than the fact that he was married.

Faulkner v the Chief Constable of Hampshire Constabulary

The Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) in Great Britain has also held that a policy that prevented police officers in a personal relationship from working together as supervisor and subordinate was justified. In Faulkner v the Chief Constable of Hampshire Constabulary, the EAT recognised the need to manage the risk that undue influence or favouritism (e.g. allocation of shifts, overtime etc) would either actually affect the integrity of one or both of the partners, or may be perceived to do so.

Further HR guidance

Read our previous articles that relate to workplace relationships

Find out how HR Solutions can support your business with any employee related matters, by calling us on 0844 324 5840 or contact us online.





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