Office Romances: How can these be Regulated?

Year Published: 2019

Mr Steve Easterbrook, the now former Chief Executive of McDonald’s, has mutually agreed for his employment to be terminated following a consensual relationship with another employee. This follows the resignation of Mr Brian Krzanich, former Chief Executive of Intel Corp, in June 2018 who resigned following a consensual relationship with another employee. These cases exemplify how office romances can be detrimental if proper policies are not in place and complied with.

In light of these two high-profile cases and amidst the #MeToo social media movement which highlights the instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault, what can employers do to manage an office romance?

Relationships at Work Policy

Employers can protect themselves, and employees, by implementing a policy to govern office romances. The concept of such policies has developed in the USA and it would be wise for employers in the UK to also regulate personal relationships in the workplace.

In the absence of a Relationships at Work Policy, the mere fact that a personal relationship exists in the workplace is not likely to constitute a fair reason for dismissal (although inappropriate behaviour linked to the relationship may be).

A policy can assist employers by explaining the expected standards of behaviour and providing a framework for management when dealing with such situations. Conflicts of interest can also arise and it is important that any decisions taken are solely in the best interests of the company, not for the benefit of a romantic partner. It is imperative that staff are aware and understand what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.

Training

Management should be provided with training so that they can effectively handle office romances. Employers will have different stances and it is vital that managers are aware of their employer’s stance.

Notification of office romances to management should be encouraged. Prompting open conversations from the outset can assist in the swift management of any issues that arise.

Public Displays of Affection (PDA)

A workplace is a professional environment, therefore PDA in the workplace are not appropriate. Colleagues can be made to feel awkward and uncomfortable and this could affect performance.

A clause banning PDA can be incorporated into a Relationships at Work Policy and breach of that clause can entitle an employer to commence disciplinary action.

Reminders

Most workplaces arrange social events and these are often where office romances start. Prior to a social event, an employer should remind staff that they are expected to adhere to company policies during any work-related social events.

A reminder is particularly relevant at this time of year with Christmas parties on the horizon for a majority, if not all, UK employers. A Relationships at Work Policy, in addition to any other relevant policies such as discrimination and harassment, should be referred to and attached to any ‘all staff’ emails that are sent in relation to a Christmas party.

Office Romances to Break-ups

Office romances that turn sour can have a significant detrimental impact on a business and its employees. Particularly hostile break-ups can lead to people refusing to talk to each other and colleagues taking sides, thereby exacerbating the situation.

Conflicts between former partners in the workplace should be handled in the same manner as any other workplace dispute. Employers expect their staff to co-operate and be civil whilst at work.

If issues arise, then managers should consider separating the employees to defuse the situation. A further action in more extreme circumstances could be to relocate one of the employees, however, employers should take legal advice before doing so. The unilateral relocation of an employee could amount to a fundamental breach of contract and/or give rise to a redundancy situation for that employee; both of which exposes the employer to claims for unfair dismissal.

Summary

A Relationships at Work Policy benefits both employers and employees.

Employers can regulate office romances and minimise disruption to their business. Furthermore, a policy will also enable an employer to enforce its terms by invoking its disciplinary procedure in the event of breach.

From an employee’s perspective, a policy will eliminate ambiguity regarding what amounts to unacceptable conduct and, more importantly, will reduce the risk of harassment occurring in the workplace.

For more information on office romances, please contact Tahsin Khan in our Employment Law & HR team on 0161 475 7669.

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