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Relationships at work

Nov 29, 2019

If ever there was a story that poured cold water on the idea of an office romance, it’s this one. McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook recently left the business after his relationship with an employee was said to have been poor judgement and a violation of company policy.

For many people, the question will be: did he really deserve to lose his job? After all, there are plenty of happily married couples that met at work. There is nothing to say that workplace romances are inherently bad, dangerous or to be avoided.

The full facts of Mr Easterbrook’s situation aren’t known. But often at the heart of these types of situations is actual or perceived conflict of interest. A business may be concerned that a personal relationship struck up at work will cross boundaries, particularly where one party is more senior than the other. And when that happens, there is the potential for the business to be harmed.

An employer will usually worry about confidential company information being shared. There may be concerns, too, about  issues around favouritism, particularly if one half of the couple reports to the other. And favouritism (perceived or otherwise) can be a thorn in the ‘favourite’s’ side; it can make them a target of bullying.

And what will happen if it all goes wrong? Could two people emerging from a failed relationship carry on working together? Would tensions create a toxic environment for all?  Might one of the exes bring an employment law claim – sex discrimination, for example - on the back of the failed relationship?

There will always be arguments that an employer should not interfere with employees’ private lives. However, workplace romances are rarely entirely ‘personal’. A business has the right to protect itself from risk. And that is why some choose to set rules about what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to relationships at work.

That has become even more of a priority since the #MeToo movement. Some employers have policies that place a total ban on relationships. Others impose strict rules about disclosure: if you’re having a relationship with a colleague, you must tell us and you must make sure that it doesn’t impact negatively on you or anyone else at work. That disclosure obligation can be a useful way of employers keeping an eye on the situation and any potential problems, as well enabling them to implement some changes (agreeing that one person will move to a different team or location, for example) if things start to look problematic.

These aren’t straightforward issues, and it’s always best to get early advice if you are concerned about a burgeoning relationship between employees (however senior or junior they are). One thing is clear, though: office romances have a knack of blossoming. And while you may not be able stop them happening, it is worth putting in place measures that will protect your business.

If you need advice on a boundary dispute please contact Julian Cole for advice on 01264 325805 or via email on jcole@bsandi.co.uk


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