Workplace relationships: A guide for employers
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Can employees form romantic relationships at work? Well, that very much depends on the business. And as the recent news scandal concerning former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook has brought to light, if you work at McDonald’s, you can’t.

Easterbrook was dismissed from his position as CEO of McDonald’s after it emerged he’d started a ‘consensual relationship’ with another employee, which went against a company policy which prohibits relationships between managers and subordinates.

The former CEO has since apologised to McDonald’s staff via email, saying he’d made a ‘mistake’ but that he agrees with the decision to dismiss him.

This case highlights the importance of having and following clear company policies, but also touches on the topic of workplace relationships, and how businesses choose to handle them in different ways.

In this article we’ll explore the best way to tackle the subject of employee relationships within your own business, and how you can help sustain a company environment that all staff are happy to work within.

The problem with workplace romances

Relationships between employees can cause managers and business owners a lot of stress, as there’s no way of knowing what effect they will have on the organisation, especially if it’s a small business where everyone knows each other.

The biggest concerns for employers are usually a dip in performance or productivity for the couple involved, and an awkward office atmosphere or even potential sexual harassment claims if the relationship turns sour.

What does the law say about workplace relationships?

There’s no UK law that says relationships between employees are illegal, but employers have the right to prohibit workplace romances if they think it could negatively impact the business.

It’s important to tread carefully on this topic as dismissing an employee for starting a workplace relationship could result in an unfair dismissal claim. In addition, if you choose to dismiss one half of the couple and not the other, or dismiss a homosexual couple but not a heterosexual couple, you’ll likely be accused of discrimination.

It’s best practice to seek professional advice before starting a disciplinary procedure, but a clear and comprehensive policy about workplace relationships will also help to communicate your stance on the subject and reduce confusion.

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Create a workplace relationships policy

The policy that Steve Easterbrook signed at McDonald’s states: ‘In order to avoid situations in which workplace conduct could negatively impact the work environment, employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship.’

However, choosing to ban employee relationships outright tends to be a risky move. It’s understandable for people to grow closer when they spend the majority of their time at work, and prohibiting workplace relationships is likely to just encourage staff to keep them a secret.

A better option is to create a policy that promotes an open and honest business environment, while also ensuring that behaviour stays professional in the workplace.

Some good clauses to include might be:

  • Employees should inform their line manager of any relationship which may affect their work in some way
  • Professional conduct should always be displayed, both at work and at work-related events
  • No preferential or unfavourable treatment should be shown to any employee as a result of a workplace relationship
  • Action will be taken in the event of any member of staff making a complaint against another
  • A more senior employee will take over matters such as annual leave allocation/appraisals in the case of an employee having a relationship with a subordinate.

Another point to remember is that your business should have a clear policy on sexual harassment which is easily accessible for all staff. This will make the company’s stance clear on what will not be seen as appropriate behaviour.

The main thing to remember when creating a policy on workplace relationships is that all employees are entitled to private lives, even within the work environment. Making judgements and being disrespectful will only create an uncomfortable company culture and could leave you open to a tribunal claim.

Get HR Support

If you need help with managing a workplace romance or advice on creating a tailored relationships policy for your business, our HR consultants can help.

Get in touch on info@citrushr.com or give us a call on 0333 444 0165 to find out more about how we can help your business with friendly, expert HR support.

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The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

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