Should employers be concerned about workplace relationships?

07 Nov 2019

The recent resignation of the McDonald’s CEO following his admission of a relationship with a junior manager has put the issue of workplace relationships back in the spotlight. Steve Easterbrook acknowledged the relationship and said it was a mistake. Whether he meant the relationship itself was a mistake or the fact that he did not disclose it, we aren’t too sure. However, if there was a McDonald’s policy requiring disclosure, his position is likely to have become untenable if there was a perception he was hiding the relationship. In this circumstance, The Board would have called into question the exercise of his judgement on non disclosure alongside how this would have looked internally to other staff. It is likely that integrity and internal reputation as well as external corporate reputation were factors in the Board’s decision.

Is there a power imbalance?

Most individuals spend more time at work than with friends and family, and therefore it is not surprising that many people find themselves in a personal relationship of some kind with a colleague. Most of the time this won’t create issues and employers won’t interfere. However where there is a workplace relationship that involves one of the individuals holding the balance of power (e.g. manager, supervisor, Board member), conflict issues are more likely to arise. Also, where an individual holds confidential or sensitive business information, “pillow talk” may become an increasing concern on the for the employer. Exposure to bribery could be a key consideration in a relationship breakdown if one party is privy to information they’ve been provided with on a confidential basis during the relationship.

If one of the parties in the relationship is responsible for the other’s appraisals, pay reviews, promotion opportunities and even work allocation, there is a danger of favouritism and perceived bias from colleagues. The relationship could impact on work performance, be distracting for the couple and others who become aware of it, and making people feel uncomfortable is likely to lead to team tension.

There may also be issues where the more junior employee feels as though they cannot say no to amorous advances and this creates an abuse of power situation and a risk of sexual harassment claims against the manager and employer.

“Love contracts” – requiring employees to declare relationships

So called “love contracts” are common in the US where individuals are asked to sign up to what is effectively their own individual workplace code of conduct on the relationship. They’ll be asked to confirm if their relationship is consensual, be required to confirm that the relationship won’t get in the way of their work and they will remain professional. In some situations it may be appropriate for one of the individuals to report into someone else or at least have a second pair of eyes on decisions such as pay reviews and promotions.

Some UK organisations have adopted a similar practice but with more emphasis on reminding employees that there may be potential for conflict rather than being overly prescriptive about the relationship. If the relationship breaks down the risk of tension increases. The emotional impact of seeing your ex partner on a daily basis could impact work performance and conduct. There may be situations where the individuals also seek to put a different narrative on the relationship and allege harassment and discrimination due to a difference in treatment.

Requiring employees to declare relationships which are likely to result in a potential conflict should be something employers should consider. However there are difficulties with declarations of interest such as when do you declare? When is a relationship a relationship that requires disclosure? Employers should also take into account that individuals may not want to disclose relationship details that reveal their sexuality.

Clear workplace policies can minimise conflict

Banning relationships is not likely to be practical or even lawful, taking into account the right to private and family life under the Human Rights Act in the UK. However putting in place steps to minimise any fall out from the relationship should be considered. This should include having in place and communicating workplace policies on conduct at work, as well as equality and diversity policies with a clear zero tolerance towards any kind of abuse of power and sexual harassment. Whether all HR departments will be geared up for employees coming forward with details of their relationships is another issue.

If you would like to discuss the issues raised in the above article further, please contact Employment Partner Rebecca Thornley-Gibson by phone or by email. 

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