Are personal relationships in the office a legitimate management concern?

Wake Smith Solicitors 05 July 2021

Pictures of high profile relationships at work have hit the headlines recently.

Joan Pettingill, Director - Head of Employment Law & HR Services at Wake Smith Solicitors takes a look at what employers need to be aware of when it comes to having a written policy about relationships at work.

Relationship policies at work are not unusual these days, but not every employer has one.

Relationship policies

First of all employers will want to consider carefully what kinds of relationship the policy would apply to. After all, the world of work involves all kinds of relationships at different levels but not all of these relationships need a “policy”.

“Personal relationships” are a sensitive area. Most employers will want a fairly broad definition to ensure their policies are watertight. However, it is unlikely they will want to be kept informed about every embrace at the office party. The definition of which relationships the policy will apply to needs to be both practical and workable.

The Human Rights Act 1998 looks to ensure that rules at work also respect employees’ private and family lives.

A complete ban on personal relationships would be likely to breach privacy rules. Most employers will simply want to make sure that the relationship does not later cause problems with lines of reporting and that it can take steps to prevent conflicts of interest from happening.

This means that personal relationships in the office are a legitimate management concern. They also give rise to legal risks such as risks of discrimination, breaches of confidentiality and potential misconduct and perceptions of bias.

One way of thinking about the kind of policy that might be appropriate is to consider what kind of harm might be caused to a business by the relationship and set out good reasons in the policy as to why management might need to take certain steps.

Relationships can be a management concern, therefore policies should avoid making promises to employees that their relationship will be kept confidential.

In these times of COVID-19, HR managers are likely to need to know for example which staff are in the same “bubble”, and so an honest approach should be taken. No action is necessarily needed just because two employees are in a personal relationship.

Relationship policies should, where possible, guide managers to take an even handed approach.

When a relationship goes wrong

Also, if a relationship goes sour, it should not be assumed that it will be the more junior staff member who might be transferred out of a team. Managers will already be aware of the need not to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation and other protected characteristics such as age. Such assumptions can lead to costly discrimination claims.

Particular concerns arise where the relationship is between “manager” and “subordinate”. Some employers will always require staff to disclose relationships at work so as to minimise the impact of the personal relationship on the business.

Information about relationships is likely to be confidential and likely to be protected by data protection laws. Managers should be appropriately supported by HR when they are dealing with personal relationship issues, as one wrong comment could lead to a claim.

Relationship policies usually also make clear that business resources should be used for business use only and not personal use. The office credit card, for example, should not be used as a way of paying for personal hotel rooms and romantic meals out, something that can happen when one or other person in the relationship doesn’t wish their expenditure to be shown upon an existing joint bank account they might share with another partner.

Where the personal relationship doesn’t work out, employers may need to carefully ensure that one party does not feel harassed by the other if their affections are not reciprocated.

Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer can be liable for the acts of their employees if they have not taken all reasonable steps to prevent harassment occurring.

Mitigating risks

The relationship at work policy should be properly communicated and ideally training should be given. Taking these steps can help employers successfully defend against claims in these circumstances where unwanted conduct can violate someone’s dignity and may be harassment.

Any grievances arising from a relationship at work should be dealt with in a timely manner. Doing so mitigates the risk of claims for constructive unfair dismissal which can arise if the grievance is not handled properly.

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For further advice on any employment law and HR matters, including policy drafting, contact Joan Pettingill at Wake Smith Solicitors on 0114 266 6660 or at [email protected] 



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