A newspaper article recently declared that the politics and practicalities of workplace romantic relationships were a ‘minefield’, a statement that the majority of HR departments would likely agree with. Their article focussed on recent high-profile resignations of CEOs and Directors at large corporations like BP for not disclosing past workplace romances, both in the US and the UK. This article will focus on employees below the Director level and explain the current legal position in England and Wales as well as some practical guidance on how to approach this tricky area in practice.
What classifies as a ‘workplace relationship’ or ‘personal relationship’?
There is no well-defined legal definition for what constitutes a workplace relationship, but there are some well-established employment law views which define the boundaries, albeit they are not exhaustive.
The word ‘relationship’ has multiple meanings within a business setting, but the type of relationship we are referring to in this article is an ‘emotional’ or ‘romantic’ relationship which goes beyond the typical boundaries of a professional relationship between colleagues. The obvious example is two colleagues who are married, the more formal end of the relationship spectrum.
However, the question most commonly asked in this area relates to the less formal end of the spectrum, romantic relationships where colleagues are ‘seeing each other’, ‘dating’, or ‘going out together’. It is safe to assume that these less formal romantic relationships constitute personal relationships in the workplace context. It will be for HR departments, or those who assume HR responsibilities, to decide where the line is drawn in borderline cases.
What are the issues to be aware of?
It is important to note that the majority of workplace relationships do not have any noticeable interference with work. However, it is still important to highlight the most typical issues that arise with workplace relationships.
Typical issues include disruption to both the employees involved and their colleagues, they can affect the retention of employees when the relationships end or become turbulent, and there is a risk of conflicts of interest which can undermine the hierarchy within teams when the relationship is between managers and subordinates.
Some specific issues to look out for include fear of favouritism by colleagues, lack of transparency in workplace matters, legal risks of harassment, reduction of team morale, and potential embarrassment for employees.
Practical guidance on approaching workplace relationships
It is important to note for those in management that just because you become aware of a workplace relationship, this does not mean a call to ‘battle stations’ immediately, only where an issue arises. Sensitivity and confidentiality (due to data protection laws) are crucial when an issue does arise, as is treating both colleagues even-handedly.
It equally key to recognise that on occasions an employee may be subject to unwanted conduct from a colleague, which in serious cases could constitute harassment. In such cases, having a suitable grievance procedure and making sure employees are aware of how to make a grievance is obviously paramount.
Employees should know the conduct expected of them when they engage in workplace relationships. This can be as small as making sure employees know that equipment and resources are only to be used for work purposes to more significant or sensitive topics like not engaging in public displays of affection.
For some workplaces, it may be appropriate to put in place a duty to inform HR where a workplace relationship involves employees in manager/subordinate roles for conflict-of-interest reasons. Employers and their HR departments/ representatives should be emphasising that any communication in this regard is confidential.
First of all, in England and Wales it is well established that the US-style ‘love contracts’ are likely to be found as unlawful i.e contracts which companies require two colleagues to sign, confirming they have freely chosen to enter a romantic relationship. Instead, it is sensible to ensure that company policies e.g. equal opportunities, bullying and harassment and data protection are fit for purpose and cover most of the risks around workplace relationships.
Such policies tend to cover the topics outlined in the last section. Such as: guidelines for management/ managers and how to handle workplace relationship issues when they arise, dealing with grievances related to relationships, the conduct expected of employees in workplace relationships, and a reminder of the interaction between the relationships policy and other related employee policies/ guidelines on discrimination and harassment.
Don’t forget, this advice is general in nature and will need to be tailored to any one particular situation. As an RMI member you have access to the RMI Legal advice line, RMI template documents, including a disciplinary process, as well as a number of industry experts for your assistance.
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