Many romantic relationships begin in the workplace. An employer cannot stop their employees being in a romantic relationship as such. All people, including employees, have the right to a private life under the Human Rights Act 1998. However, where that “private life” actually or potentially impacts on work, as an employer you might also have a legitimate interest to protect your business — and can potentially take action.
Usually, it is best to have a “relationship policy” in place setting out what should happen in such situations, otherwise it is likely to be much harder to take action. Clandestine inter-employee relationships at work are commonplace and can cause havoc. Yet surprisingly very few employers have a relationship policy in place.
What should a relationship policy entail?
Relationships between employees can give rise to a myriad of issues, such as the ability to give genuine consent, grooming, favouritism and a negative impact on colleagues. Where the relationship fails, issues such as allegations of harassment and discrimination may come to the fore and employers may be tasked with how to manage the fallout within the business to ensure other employees are not impacted and the company’s reputation remains intact.
Any workplace policy should be written. Without a written relationship policy in place, it may be unclear as to what action employers may legitimately and fairly take. For instance, if a senior manager starts dating a younger colleague, can you remove one of them from the team if you decide they should no longer work together? If you decide to move the younger employee, will they feel discriminated against on grounds of sex, or age? This can leave the employer open to discrimination claims and so the situation must be handled with care and all interactions should be documented.
A relationship policy can set out the employer’s position on what should happen in higher-risk situations such as where one employee is more senior than the other, where one holds a senior position within the business, or where the employees work in the same team.
It might even seek to put a blanket ban on the most senior of employees being involved with any other employees or face termination of employment if they do not comply. It can also expressly require the employees to immediately disclose the fact they are or have been physically or emotionally involved with a colleague.
In the world of modern dating, it is important that any relationship policy is well drafted to capture a broad range of sexual and/or emotional relationships and interactions between colleagues. Otherwise, the employees might be more likely to try to conceal it.
Employers do need to be sensitive, however, that sometimes employees may be fearful of disclosing a relationship: if, for example, they are gay, and they do not want to disclose this to their colleagues. The employee would still be bound by the relationship policy, but the employer should be sensitive to the employee’s situation. Above all, employees should be treated fairly and equally.
If an employee then breaches that relationship policy, the employer will be in a much stronger position to action disciplinary proceedings and could argue that the employee has breached their contract of employment.
Having a written relationship policy is highly advisable as without one in place, employers may be limited as to what they can do in such situations and may find themselves more vulnerable to claims.
If you have questions about implementing a relationship policy in your company, please contact Michelle Last.
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.