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Are employee relationships the forbidden fruit?
Many people find a partner at work. But relationships at work can create legal and genuine concerns. Sarah Barker, Solicitor Apprentice at Napthens, assesses what you need to do to help prevent conflict at work.
Romances between colleagues are the lifeblood of countless television dramas from Holby to Grey’s Anatomy. However, the reality for employers is that having individuals who are involved in a relationship working alongside each other can present various legal and practical concerns. For example, the real or perceived risk of a conflict of interest, confidentiality issues and a risk of disruption, or worse, possible legal claims if the relationship were to break down.
Is it as simple as getting employees to sign a Grey’s Anatomy-type ‘Love Contract’?
‘Love contracts’ aren’t an official term, but they are simply a document signed by the employees confirming that they are in a consensual relationship and acknowledging the relevant policies and the standard of behaviour expected of them. Whilst the enforceability of the contract is legally uncertain in the UK, it does provide an employer with peace of mind that the employees have acknowledged and accepted what standards expected of them.
These types of contracts have increased in the US following the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. However, employers in the UK will find it very difficult to enforce a similar policy as the Human Rights Act 1998 provides a right to respect for private and family life (Article 8). An outright ban on romantic involvement in the workplace is unlikely to be proportionate other than in very limited circumstances where this can be justified due to the nature of the work. For example, some healthcare professionals, such as nurses and doctors, are required to follow a strict code of conduct when it comes to relationships at work.
“You’ve got to hide your love away”
Some employees may choose to keep a relationship with a colleague quiet for fear of judgement and, if the relationship involves a senior manager, the perception by other employees that they will receive better treatment than them. Where there is no code of conduct governing relationships at work, employers should seek to engage with staff and the use of discretionary policies may be a better way of regulating relationships, rather than risk employees ‘sneaking around’ because of the taboo surrounding relationships at work.
How far can employers go in restricting workplace relationships?
Rather than banning personal relationships between colleagues altogether, a more subtle approach may be to introduce a policy requiring staff to disclose a workplace relationship.
This would allow the employer to take pre-emptive steps to avoid conflicts of interest. One such example may be to changing reporting lines, in the case of an employee reporting to their partner. This approach is more likely to be upheld by a tribunal.
When dealing with relationships at work, employers are at risk of claims for sex discrimination if they treat one person in the couple less favourably than the other e.g. it should not automatically be assumed that a female employee will be transferred from their role in order to maintain confidentiality if she is in a relationship with a male employee in her department.
It should also go without saying that employees in a homosexual relationship should be treated no less favourably than colleagues in a heterosexual one.
So, whilst the relationships played out in Grey’s Anatomy are merely fictional, relationships between colleagues at work are inevitable, particularly those in the healthcare sector who are likely to spend longer, intense periods of time with each other. That said, employers should be mindful of introducing a ban on workplace relationships and instead look to engage with staff on an open basis and implementing a more practical approach. Introducing a ‘relationships at work’ policy setting out expected behaviour and dealing with inappropriate behaviour linked to a relationship under the employer’s normal disciplinary rules may be one option they want to consider. Without any relevant policy or rules in place to cover the situation, the mere fact of a workplace relationship will not be a reason to discipline an employee.
If you have any questions in relation to the above, then please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Napthens Employment team, who are able to offer 30 minutes of free advice to QCS members.
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