Given that we spend a significant amount of time working, office romances are inevitable. In fact it’s estimated that around 1 in 10 couples actually meet at work. There are obviously many happy stories where they work. However, for some, the fallout can be messy, so it’s good to be prepared to try to avoid unpleasant issues in the workplace.
A very high profile example of this going horribly wrong is McDonalds’ ex CEO Steve Easterbrook recently ‘agreeing’ to pay back his severance package of US$105 million. He was originally fired for a consensual relationship with another member of staff in breach of company policy, which banned intimate relationships between direct or indirect reports. Subsequent investigation, however, uncovered other hidden relationships. And McDonalds are also in trouble with the SEC for their disclosures around his firing (as well as failing to protect workers more generally over their handling of sexual harassment claims).
Less high-profile cases of staff being fired because they have started a relationship at work are not uncommon either.
Of course ‘office romance’ covers a broad spectrum of activity from flirting through to getting married. Post #metoo it is understandable, though, that businesses are cautious about intimate activity between colleagues because of the desire to avoid a culture where sexual harassment is tolerated and the potential for harassment claims.
So, what are the legal issues to be aware of? What should you do (if anything) when staff are in a relationship?
- While there are no legal rules in the UK which prevent relationships at work, you may decide that you need to give staff guidance or even set some rules about what’s ok/not ok, particularly if there is a difference in seniority. For example: could there be confidentiality issues, unhappiness from others who fear bias/favouritism, what about if things don’t ultimately work out and the relevant people won’t or can no longer work together?
- In the USA, the so-called ’love contract’ which prevents relationships between colleagues is common. However, in the UK, such contracts are unlikely to be enforceable. But, you may want to have a ‘relationships policy’ so that everyone knows what is ok or not, and managers have a framework to guide them.
- Rather than seeking to ban relationships, a policy might require any relationship to be disclosed so that steps can be taken, if necessary, to avoid problems down the line. For example, this might involve changing reporting lines or removing certain responsibilities such as deciding bonuses.
- You need to be very careful, for example, not to assume it will always be the more junior person (often female) who is moved to a different role and not to treat same sex relationships differently to heterosexual relationships, etc.
- You also need to ensure that any policy is fully communicated across your workplace, with training, so that everyone knows where they stand and what is required of them.
- Staff should not be disciplined simply because they have entered into a relationship with a colleague. However, this may be justified where you have a policy that has been breached, particularly if it could affect the business/others etc. Misconduct, such as dishonesty linked to the relationship may also justify disciplinary action. As in the case of Steve Easterbrook, it was the fact that he had hidden his relationships which was a significant factor in his termination.
- If there is any suggestion that a relationship may not be consensual, or that unwanted sexual advances are being made in the workplace you must take speedy action. See our previous blog on dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Training staff as part of induction and regular updates on what is and is not acceptable behaviour at work is the best insurance policy for avoiding claims.
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