Personal relationships in the workplace – What’s the problem?

Posted on Tuesday, March 19, 2024 by Sue FranklinNo comments

In recent years, relationships at work have been under the spotlight, and there have been numerous reports of senior executives resigning or being dismissed as a result of workplace relationships including last year when Bernard Looney, the CEO of BP, resigned for failing to fully disclose details of his past personal relationships with colleagues.


Despite this increased focus, employers are often unsure about how to manage workplace relationships. In this article, we discuss the risks associated with workplace relationships, and how employers can best manage the issues that commonly arise.


Risks associated with workplace relationships


There are several risks associated with workplace relationships, which can be very tricky for employers to navigate and manage. The first concerns conflicts of interest that can arise when two employees are romantically involved. Most commonly, this occurs when one partner is in a more senior position and is therefore able to unfairly boost or – when a relationship goes wrong – hinder the other’s career progression and opportunities.


Any perceived or actual favouritism can also have a very damaging impact on the broader workplace, as staff feel as though their opportunities are being unfairly limited, whilst others are unduly favoured. The risk of disclosure of confidential information from the more senior to the junior partner is also apparent.


There is of course also a risk of sexual harassment – which can occur at the point where a colleague makes advances to try and initiate a relationship, or at other stages. If a relationship ends, there is also a risk that the aggrieved party will victimise the other partner, treating them less favourably as a consequence of the relationship breaking down. Alternatively, if a complaint of harassment is made, the accused party may then subject him or her to detrimental treatment as a result, which would amount to unlawful victimisation under the Equality Act. Any such conduct gives rise to a risk of legal claims being pursued against the employer.


Managing work relationship risks


It is usually not appropriate or realistic to impose an outright ban on relationships at work, and to do so is likely to amount to an unjustifiable interference with the employee’s right to a private and family life (as enshrined in the Human Rights Act).


A better approach is to introduce a policy which sets out rules and guidelines around relationships at work. Such a policy would typically include:

  • Guidelines for managers regarding identifying risks – such as harassment and favouritism. Guidelines can also be issued for those in relationships, setting out the standards of conduct expected whilst they are at work, including a clear statement that the employer will not tolerate any form of harassment of its staff.
  • A requirement that, in some circumstances, both parties will be required to disclose the relationship to HR. Usually this will only be required where the personal relationship involves those in a direct or indirect reporting line or in manager/subordinate roles. The policy should clearly set out the rationale for requiring employees to disclose the relationship.
  • Rules around managing risks once a disclosure has been made. HR and management should be required to liaise with those involved in order to agree a plan to minimise the impact of the personal relationship on the business. This could involve transferring one or both of the partners from their current role, or introducing measures that guard against favouritism, and biased decision making.

In addition to introducing a policy, employers should also provide training, so that employees are aware of the rules and guidelines around relationship at work, and the employer’s expectations.


Addressing concerns of misconduct


Clearly, if allegations of sexual misconduct or victimisation are made in the context of a workplace relationship, then these need to be investigated in accordance with the employer’s disciplinary procedures, and appropriate disciplinary action should then be taken.


But what should an employer do if it discovers that a line manager has failed to disclose a relationship with a direct report? If this is clearly spelt out as a requirement in the employer’s policy, and the failure to disclose the relationship has led to a real risk of a conflict of interest, then it may be appropriate to take disciplinary action against the manager, depending on the severity of the risk.


In serious cases, where a manager has been found to unfairly favour their partner, and this has had a detrimental impact on others, an employer may take the view that this has fundamentally undermined its trust and confidence in the manager, and that dismissal is justified. However, an employer must of course follow a fair process before making any such decision and be mindful of the risk that the manager could pursue a claim in respect of their dismissal.


Overall, there are many dangers associated with relationships in the workplace, but by introducing a comprehensive relationships at work policy, providing appropriate training, and acting decisively once any issues are discovered, employers can mitigate many of these risks.

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