The subject of personal relationships at work can be a tricky area to navigate, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. But are restrictions on such relationships permissible, and is it reasonable for a company to implement a Personal Relationships policy?
Here we take a brief look at the issues for employers to consider.
Love in the workplace – what can go wrong?
Personal relationships in the workplace can give rise to a number of potential issues, including:
- perceived or actual favouritism where one of the parties is in a managerial capacity
- conflicts of interest
- potential disclosure of confidential information
- allegations regarding discrimination or harassment, particularly when a relationship breaks down
Is it acceptable to have a policy regarding personal relationships at work?
It is perfectly acceptable for an employer to have a policy regarding personal relationships at work, in order to protect its legitimate business interests and those of its employees. However, a blanket ban on such relationships is unlikely to be enforceable, from both a practical perspective and a legal one. It could also be counter-productive, leading to any such relationships being kept secret, meaning that the employer cannot put measures in place to protect itself from the risks involved.
What should a policy cover?
The key thing is for the employer to remain fair and to retain the flexibility to deal appropriately with the particular issues which arise in each situation. Not all personal relationships will give rise to the same issues. The policy should, however, address the following:
- The circumstances in which employees are expected to disclose any relationship to the employer
- Who they should notify
- What information they will be expected to provide
- How such information will be treated (note that this will constitute sensitive personal information, and should be dealt with according to Data Protection principles
- What issues the employer will consider in assessing whether any action needs to be taken in the light of such information
- What steps the employer may take in order to protect its and its employees’ interests
- What consultation will take place with the employees concerned before any decisions are made
- Examples of unacceptable behaviour at work
- The potential repercussions where employees are found to have breached the policy, or other policies in respect of Equal Opportunities and Data Protection.
Would it be fair to relocate one of the employees in a relationship to another site or department?
The fairness of any such action would depend upon the particular circumstances of the situation and the risks to the employer of the two people continuing to work in close proximity. Before taking such a step the employer must fully consult with the employees concerned, or risk having to deal with a messy grievance and ultimately falling foul of an unfair (constructive) dismissal claim.
When taking any action under a policy employers should be careful not to fall foul of claims of unlawful discrimination, most likely to be on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation or marital status. An example would be where an employer, dealing with a heterosexual relationship involving a manager and a subordinate, automatically transfers the woman to another department, without being able to justify why it didn’t transfer the man.
Can an employer dismiss an employee for breaching the Personal Relationships Policy?
Such conduct would be a potentially fair reason for dismissal if the procedure is clear that this is a potential sanction. However, whether such a dismissal would ultimately be found to be fair will ultimately depend upon whether such action is deemed to be reasonable in the particular circumstances of the case, and whether a fair dismissal procedure has been followed. There may also be risks of claims of unlawful discrimination, as referred to above, for which the financial award in the Employment Tribunal is uncapped. Further advice on the particular situation in hand should be taken before dismissal is contemplated.
If you require further advice on any of the issues referred to in this article, or on any other HR or Health and Safety issue, please contact us on 01942 727200.