The recent high-profile dismissal of McDonald’s Chief Executive in the United States of America for having a consensual relationship with three female colleagues has raised some eyebrows. With an estimated third of relationships starting in the workplace in the UK, is it a reasonable approach to take, and is it reasonable when the relationship is consensual?
McDonalds have a company policy restricting romantic relationships in the workplace – which the CEO was found to have breached.
However, if you don’t have such a policy, would it expose you to a successful unfair dismissal or discrimination claim if you dismissed an employee because they had a romantic relationship with another employee?
First of all, you would need to know about relationships in the workplace existing in order to do something about it. If you had a policy requiring disclosure then that does give you an angle to take action if they fail to tell you about the relationship.
Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provides a right of ‘respect for your family and private life’, which arguably includes forming and maintaining relationships with colleagues. However, as problems can arise during and after the relationship ends, employers could legitimately argue they need to know or take steps to manage situations where relationships evolve.
During the relationship questions marks may be raised over pay rises for staff who may be in a relationship with a manager. This can lead to resentment or discrimination claims from other members of the team. If the relationship turns sour, aside from the challenges of managing two people who may have fallen out and are not on speaking terms, there is the risk to the business of successful claims of harassment or bullying by either colleague.
Aside from having a policy on relationships which require employees to disclose any relationships from the outset, employers may want to take steps to separate employees in relationships into different teams or even separate areas of the office. Alternatively, an employer may try to restrict senior members of staff from having any romantic relationships with more junior staff. You may think that remote working could help prevent issues like bullying and harassment, but that can still take place across social media platforms unlike verbal conversations. A WhatsApp message is potentially powerful evidence to corroborate this.
How do you manage relationships in the workplace?
Having a clear policy on what an employee is required to do from a disclosure perspective is important. Employers need to consider what their stance is on relationships and manage the risk if they do permit relationships between colleagues. BlackRock have reportedly decided to approach this by taking a more robust stance and have introduced a company policy that requires all staff to “disclose personal relationships”. This not only includes relationships with colleagues but also with ”employees of a service provider, vendor, or other third party (including a client), if the non-BlackRock employee is within a group that interacts with BlackRock”. Is this going too far and an invasion of privacy, or a necessary step to avoid issues arising in the workplace and limiting liability if it does?
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