Relationships at Work

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Given that we spend so much of our time in or around the workplace, there is an inevitability that employees will find themselves embroiled in personal relationships at work.

So, what are the issues? And whilst this may seem like a ridiculous question – what is a relationship at work?

Let’s deal with the latter question first. Everyone assumes that a personal relationship at work is a  sordid office romance but there are numerous situations where husband and wife teams have worked together in the same family business for years. Similarly, there are countless instances where people get jobs for other family members. So, if we are going to start raising issues about conflict of interest or judgement impacted due to close personal relationships, let’s understand this is about more than office romances. And difficult commercial decisions are compounded when family members are involved – nothing new about that issue.

So what are the issues – a few frequently asked questions?

Q – Two employees have started a relationship, are they obliged to advise the Company?

Answer – Legally No, unless there is a specific policy or clause in the contract requiring the disclosure of a personal relationship at work but it is reasonable to expect a relationship to be declared if it poses a possible conflict of interest. However, if you have a suspicion, you can ask one or either of them and they can either say “yes”, “no” – categorically deny it or refuse to answer the question.

If they categorically deny it and subsequently it is clear that they lied, that can give rise to a trust issue and if they refuse to answer the question, some might take that as an admission!

Q – Does it make a difference if one person in the relationship is the other person’s line manager?

A – Yes, it can make a difference because the line manager may be in a position (no pun intended) to influence pay and benefits, promotion and development opportunities and clearly other people in the team will be uncomfortable because there will be a perception of favouritism and bias.

Q – Can one person be asked to leave?

A– Yes but they can refuse! If you insist that one person must leave, there is a strong likelihood that you could end up with an Employment Tribunal unless the issue is dealt with carefully and a mutual agreement is reached with agreed terms of exit via a form of settlement agreement or an ACAS COT3.

Note – it is unlawful for employers to treat women or men less favorably because of their sex and if only one person is being asked to leave because of the relationship, there may be grounds for a sex discrimination claim.

Q – Can a business forbid relationships at work?

A – Yes, they can try but they are very difficult and somewhat impracticable to police and it can depend on the level of the employees involved. Each case would have to be taken on its merits and an assessment made as to whether a relationship poses a risk to the business or a conflict of interest. Also, policies which ban relationships at work run the risk of breaching Human Rights and if dismissal is being contemplated in these circumstances, there is a strong likelihood of a tribunal claim.

Q – Two employees in a relationship caught in a compromising position, is this a potential dismissal offence?

A – Yes, very likely – an employer requires employees to adhere to certain rules and standards of behaviour whilst at work or on company premises. Depending on the nature of the circumstances, the employer may be entitled to take the view that this is a gross misconduct offence.

However, the situation does not remove the requirement to carry out an investigation, conduct a disciplinary hearing and offer a right of appeal. And if it is clear that a misconduct offence has been committed, both employees should be subject to the same penalty.

Q – what safeguards can employers put in place to manage relationships at work?

A – Firstly, good practice would say that it is not a good idea for two people to be in a relationship where one line manages the other.

Secondly, assess the risk in terms of commercial information. Both employees are likely to have confidentiality clauses in their contract, but there may be situations where one person in the relationship is privy to greater levels of confidential information or have wider knowledge of the business strategy including acquisitions, payroll, business sale etc. Such issues must be dealt with on an individual and case by case basis.

Also, decisions for instance – regarding disciplinary action, grievance investigations or redundancy selection should not be made by a person who has a conflict of interest due to a personal involvement with an individual.

Q – what happens if the relationship between two work colleagues breaks up and it causes friction and animosity amongst the team.

A – Deal with it quickly……you are entitled to have a conversation and make it clear that whilst the relationship may have ended, they still have to work together and they should not bring their problems to work. If these situations are allowed to fester, it will have a detrimental impact on team morale so they should be addressed.

Also, in terms of all the answers to the questions, it makes no difference if the employees are in a same sex relationship.

Whilst these questions have concentrated on 2 employees in the same Company being in a personal relationship, it is possible that an employee could be in a relationship with a supplier, competitor or even a customer/client and in these situations, it is arguable that there is a conflict of interest in terms of the risk of commercial confidentiality – “pillow talk”. These types of relationship also need to be carefully managed to protect the commercial interests of the business.


AB HR Solutions offers HR support to businesses, if you want advice or support on any of the issues raised in this article, get in touch.

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