Personal Relationships at Work

Shielding | Coronavirus

In a modern world, where we all spend a lot of time at work and with our colleagues, there is a growing trend of personal or intimate relationships developing. Personal relationships include family relationships, sexual relationships, very close friendships, and close business, commercial and financial.

It is generally regarded as unrealistic and too much of an interference with an employee’s right to a private life to place a total ban on personal relationships at work and so it is encouraged that employees and employers accept that personal relationships at work are normal.

This hot topic looks at the implications of when these relations overspill into the workplace, as well as exploring the need for a Workplace Relationship policy in order that a company can be clear on their stance.

Benefits of personal relationships in the workplace

Quite often, close personal relationships cause no problems at all for an organisation. In fact, they can bring many benefits. 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.

Challenges of personal relationships in the workplace

There can be several challenges that arise out of personal relationships in the workplace if not managed appropriately and which could have a detrimental impact on the business.

There can be some cases where 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.

Conflict of interest

This is where an employee’s personal relationship with another close business or commercial interest conflicts with the professional interest that they owe to their employer. Most common examples of this are those employees who have their own business on the side; or hold second jobs with other employers.

Subjective and unfair recruitment decisions

Personal relationships could, if not managed properly lead, to subjective and unfair recruitment decisions. It is recommended that if an employee involved in any recruitment activity has a close personal or family relationship with a candidate, then it would normally be appropriate for them to step away from the recruitment process and have no further involvement.

Preferential and inconsistent treatment of employees

If two employees who have a personal relationship and are in the same team or department, then consideration should be given to the impact or perceived impact the relationship will have on other team members and working practices. This is especially important where one reports into the other.

For instance, consider how annual leave requests are managed; how shift patterns are operated as well as other sign off processes, such as expenses. You do not want claims of actual or perceived preferential treatment.

Confidential breaches

Consider confidentiality; personal relationships if not managed appropriately could lead an abuse of an employee’s position of trust and confidentiality. Those who have personal relationships should not work together in any circumstance whereby a breach of confidentiality may be gained from the overlap of personal and professional relationships.

Inappropriate behaviours

Each workplace will have their own set of rules and standards for how people should behave whilst at work. Unfortunately, there are occasions where personal relationships turn sour and the impact of this can cross over into the workplace and the wrong behaviours are displayed by either one or both parties.

Bullying and harassment

There can be some cases where personal relationships result in a situation becoming untenable, particularly if a relationship turns sour, and one very serious consequence is when it leads to bullying and harassment in the workplace.

For example, an employee has been coerced into a relationship against their will, or where unwanted personal contact with an individual after a relationship has ended. Both are regarded as harassment.

Bullying includes unwanted physical contact or assault but also verbal bullying such as insulting or threatening comments. Comments intended to undermine, belittle, embarrass, or humiliate.

Grievances

Where you have personal relationships turn sour and in turn leads to one of the parties acting inappropriately towards the other at work, you risk a grievance being raised.

Equally, where an employer has introduced measures to address any conflict between parties who have a personal relationship but have done so in an unfair or discriminatory manner, then this too can lead to grievances.

Practical measures for managing personal relationships

With several challenges that can arise from personal relationships in the workplace, it is important to consider what measures the business should take in addressing any potential risk.

Any practical step you take to manage personal relationships at work should be fair and reasonable and not discriminate on the grounds of a protected characteristic (gender, marital status for example). Here are some measures you can consider having in place:

  • Consider introducing an employee declaration form where you ask job applicants to declare any personal relationship. This is about enabling the organisation to take reasonable and appropriate steps on appointment to safeguard the business, and should not be a bar to employment
  • Require the existing workforce to report any personal relationships. Again, this is to enable the organisation to take reasonable and appropriate steps in the workplace to manage the personal relationship at work
  • Those employees involved in recruitment who have a personal relationship with a job candidate (internal or external) should not be involved in the selection process
  • When an employee notifies you of a personal relationship, meet with them to consider the impact the relationship may cause within the working environment and any resulting risk or conflict of interest. Agree appropriate measures to address where necessary
  • If two employees with a personal relationship are in the same team, meet with both to consider the impact, or perceived impact the relationship will have on their colleagues and identify any measures that may need to be introduced to address any resulting issues
  • Where a personal relationship exists between a manager and an employee consider an alternative line manager or consider transferring one of the employees to a suitable alternative role, following discussion with both. In doing so, any transfers would need to be done so sensitively and carefully so to not discriminate on grounds of gender, or any other protected characteristic
  • If moving an employee to an alternative role, then consider additional measures that can be introduced to safeguard the business
  • If you capture data regarding personal relationships at work be sure that you have genuine need to do so and the purpose of it is enable you to identify and manage measures that are being put in place to mitigate risk. The data stored will be personal data and must be kept strictly private and confidential with only those who requires access to it for the purpose of administering it and managing risk. Be aware that this data would also be disclosable should you receive a subject access request from the data subject.
Can an employer act under their disciplinary policy?

Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1988 give employees the right to respect for a private and family life, meaning that employees have the right to a degree of privacy in the workplace. Whilst employers have no right to interfere with their employees’ personal relationships, they do have a right to act when a relationship at work has a detrimental effect on their business.

There are many examples of where the business could be adversely affected by an employee’s personal relationship and therefore be justified for addressing. For instance:

  • 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.

If the business is suffering a detriment because of a personal relationship at work, then you can address the issue of concern under your organisation’s disciplinary procedure, just as you would for any other type of conduct issue. However, the type and level of action taken should be determined by the circumstances of the case.

For example, you would not take employees to disciplinary for spending excessive work time discussing personal matters for the first occasion; in this case a more informal approach would be appropriate of simply having a quiet word with both parties.

However, where you believe an employee has leaked confidential information to someone whom they have a personal relationship with, then it would be entirely reasonable for you to instigate a disciplinary investigation and for this type of issue to be addressed in a formal disciplinary hearing.

Check your own company disciplinary policy on the rules you have in place; and take appropriate action relevant to the circumstances of the case in line with them.

Legal Considerations

There are no specific laws that govern personal relationships by employees, however, there is broader employment legislation that could apply when managing personal relationships in the workplace.

Under the Equality Act 2010, sex discrimination is where an employer discriminates against someone because of their sex. As with all forms of discrimination, there are four types: direct, indirect, harassment and victimisation.

In the context of personal relationships at work, an example of where sex discrimination can occur is where a female employee and not the male employee is being asked to leave because of their personal relationship. Furthermore, if an employee feels though they have suffered harassment in the workplace because of their sex, this could also be sex discrimination. So, for example, after a personal relationship breaks down, one party subjects the other to unwanted personal contact in the workplace.

In extreme cases of sex discrimination, employees may be also entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal.

It is also important to be aware that separate to the Equality Act 2010 where sex discrimination is prohibited, whether it is direct, indirect, harassment or victimisation, employees can also claim harassment through the civil courts in accordance with the Protection of Harassment Act 1997.

There are other protected characteristics that are covered by the Equality Act, and the principals around discrimination (direct, indirect, harassment and victimisation) apply. When managing personal relationships at work, also bear in mind marriage and civil partnership as another potential risk.

If addressing issues that arise out of personal relationship through a disciplinary process be sure that you have justification to do so, i.e. you can reasonably show that as a consequence of the relationship it has had a detrimental impact on the business. Mishandling a disciplinary process and progressing without reasonable justification could render any action unfair, including an unfair dismissal.

It is important that you are taking steps to mitigate the risk of a tribunal claim, and so the key principles to remember when managing personal relationships in the workplace include:

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

Why have a policy?

Unfortunately, as we have discussed, there can be some cases where 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 and most importantly; consistently.

A written policy is also helpful to line managers in understanding their responsibilities and role in manging personal relationships within their teams and steps they can take to manage appropriately and to manage the situation taking account of legal considerations, as detailed above.

What to include in a policy?

As with all policies, setting out its purpose and scope is vital to ensuring you gain your employees buy-in to the rules that are contained within it. Knowing why you must introduce measures in managing personal work relationships will also support and underpin any action the organisation may need to take for any breach of the rules.

The main content would likely include areas that cover:

  • Definitions of what constitutes a personal relationship
  • What happens if there is a breach of policy
  • How to deal with unwanted personal contact after a relationship has ended
  • How to manage personal relationships in the workplace, such as managing behaviours, recruiting, management issues, and conflict of interest
  • Consequences of breaching the policy.

As with any employment tribunal claim; the tribunal will want to know what policy is in place that tells the employee what is acceptable; that they are clear on the consequences if breached and that the rules have been sufficiently communicated across the business and implemented by all.

Further HR Support

Watch the recent webinar recording, ‘Personal Relationships’, on demand and at your convenience.

HR Solutions are here to provide you with support and advice on any employment related issues; to find out more call us on 0844 324 5840 or contact us online.

Interested in what we do?

Get the latest news from HR Solutions delivered to your inbox