Employers concerned about the effects of employee relationships on their business need to ensure they have professionally drafted policies in place to avoid claims of harassment or discrimination.
The advice from employment law specialists at law firm Slater Heelis comes after the British chief executive of McDonalds, Steve Easterbrook, was dismissed following the discovery of his relationship with a junior colleague.
Rules at McDonalds prohibit employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other from dating or having a sexual relationship.
Tracey Guest, partner and head of employment law at Slater Heelis, said: “In the absence of a policy or procedure which governs relationships at work, there is nothing in law which prevents employees from engaging in relationships in the workplace. As such, the existence of workplace relationship will not, of itself, justify an employer taking disciplinary action or dismissing an employee.
“However, the lack of legal guidance in this thorny area has led many employers to recognise the benefit of clarifying what is acceptable with regard to personal relationships at work and implementing policies and procedures.
“These policies must clearly set out what the employer expects from its employees in such situations; provide guidance to managers on how to deal with relationships at work and assist everyone in understanding what is and what is not acceptable.”
Seven Tips for an Effective Relationship at Work Policy:
- define who is covered by the policy
- define what relationships the policy is intended to cover – for example, emotional or romantic relationships which go beyond the normally accepted boundaries of the professional sphere between colleagues, including marriage, civil partnerships, cohabitation and “seeing each other”
- set out the purpose of the policy, i.e. not to interfere with the private lives of employees but to deal with personal relationships which are or may become problematic because they adversely impact on other colleagues or negatively affect business efficiency
- advise managers on how to deal with personal relationships which are or may be problematic in a way which is proportionate, sensitive, confidential and not discriminatory
- advise employees involved in personal relationships at work what is expected of them in terms of conduct in the workplace
- set out what is expected in terms of what is acceptable and what is disclosable in relation to personal relationships, for example, where the relationship exists between a manager/subordinate and/or members of the same team
- refer to other policies which may be applicable, for example, an equal opportunities, harassment, discipline and grievance policies.
Guest added: “A relationship at work policy will give an employer a potentially fair reason to discipline employees in breach, through any such policy should be kept under regular review and provided to employees.
“Furthermore, training should be made available to managers to ensure that the policy is correctly and sensitively administered to avoid claims of harassment or discrimination.
“It is worth remembering, there is no limit on the compensation that can be awarded in a discrimination claim so it is crucial a relationship at work policy is watertight.”