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The roses from Valentine's Day might be rotting in the compost, but for the ex-chief executive of McDonald's, sacked for dating another employee in November 2019, his 14 February was probably a quiet one. Sympathy for Mr Easterbrook and his £37m payout aside, managing workplace relationships is something of a tightrope for employees.
Large US companies such as McDonald’s and Intel have strict "no relationship" clauses, and clearly no one is exempt. These clauses are not so common in the UK, but the issue still remains and is something that needs to be addressed in most workplaces.
Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, protects the right of an individual to a private life which includes romantic relationships. A draconian workplace "no relationship" clause could fall foul of this right, and so a dismissal for engaging in a consensual romantic relationship would most likely be unfair other than in narrow circumstances. However, employers have the right to outline to employees the kind of behaviour that is expected of them in the workplace. A Code of Conduct and a Bullying and Harassment Policy are examples of this. An employer also has a duty to ensure that an employee can work in a non-threatening environment, free from intimidation and harassment. The law, therefore, offers no clear, practical solution but just two boundaries for an employer to work within. There are essentially two choices; to stay silent on the issue of romantic relationships at work or to draft a policy.
Staying silent on this issue avoids any infringement of the right to privacy, and it could be argued, be more realistic. Are employees going to disclose information about their romantic relationships with their line manager or HR team and does that include "entanglements" at Christmas parties as well? Conversely, it means the employer is ignorant of any non-work relationships that are going on and so unaware of any tensions they may be causing in the workplace to colleagues; and underlying problems when the relationship breaks down, especially if the relationship cuts across the management structure.
We would advise taking the following steps;
- Draft a clear Relationships at Work Policy stating clearly that the purpose of the policy is to ensure that the workplace environment remains a professional one where each employee and worker is treated with dignity and respect. While romantic relationships are not banned, that those employees or workers involved in such relationships are mindful of such boundaries while at work.
- Include in the policy a notification clause whereby employees are asked to disclose any relationship where there is any direct reporting line between the two individuals or other relationship where a conflict of interest could occur and reiterating that all information would be treated in confidence;
- Reiterate the commitment to a workplace free of bullying and harassment;
- Be aware, when relationships break down, of potential discrimination issues if it is necessary for the individuals to work in different teams; ensure that any actions taken are decided based on transparent criterion and are clearly documented; and
- If relevant, ensure the issue of romantic relationships between employees and clients or end-users is addressed somewhere in the staff handbook. This is especially key where clients or end users are vulnerable; if that is the case, it is advisable to address this in the code of conduct and possibly include these types of relationships as examples of gross misconduct. It is also advisable to cross-refer to a social media policy concerning online relationships and the relevant parameters.
For more information
For further advice on any of the issues covered in this e-briefing, please contact Libby Hubbard.
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