In one of our previous blog posts, we explored some of the effects that the #MeToo movement of recent years could have on relationships in work settings – including whether the ‘office romance’ may be set for decline.

There were certain questions that we didn’t address in that piece, however, with one of these being what would constitute a serious, long-lasting and therefore relatively ‘acceptable’ relationship in the workplace.

This is as opposed to the romantic relationships and affairs in direct reporting lines or those which create conflicts of interest, which tend to be much more frequently frowned upon. In short, is it possible for employers to effectively police what can be considered an ‘acceptable’ workplace relationship?

Employers are presented with a difficult balancing act

The management of workplace relationships can be a real dilemma for many organisations.

As an employer yourself, you may be concerned to ensure that business interests are protected, employee productivity and morale maintained, and conflicts avoided. But it is also necessary for an employer to respect an employee’s right to a private life.

This in turn raises the question of whether employer practices that interfere with the right of an employee to form relationships infringe the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What other concerns are businesses likely to have?

Another reason employers need to carefully consider issues that arise around employee relationships, is so that they are not left vulnerable to claims for unfair dismissal.

There are certain circumstances in which a relationship between employees may constitute a fair reason for dismissal, particularly where this would represent a breach of a consistently and notoriously applied company policy.

However, employers still need to follow a fair process and ensure consistency with regard to how they handle office romances, which should include first considering alternative options to dismissal.

The employer may consider whether the employee in question could be redeployed, for example, or whether reporting lines could be altered to avert a potential conflict. If such a conflict is identified, the employer should also consider whether this would give rise to a real commercial risk.

There are various means by which employee relationships may be dealt with fairly

While policies addressing workplace discrimination and sexual harassment remain imperative, an employer may also consider putting in place policies that set out acceptable standards of conduct with regard to consensual relationships between employees.

Some employers may adopt a stance, for example, of completely prohibiting employee relationships, especially in circumstances where a conflict of interest may arise – for instance, when there is a difference in seniority between the employees involved.

For other employers, however, the expectation may simply be that employees disclose any relationships with colleagues to HR.

Then, there is the situation in the United States, where firms sometimes use so-called “love contracts” or “consensual relationship agreements” to get employees to confirm that the given relationship is consensual. This particular measure is designed to give the employer a degree of protection against any future sexual harassment and discrimination claims.

Managers may also benefit from training in relation to how to deal with disclosures about consensual relationships and reports of sexual harassment, which could help to address any possible issues before they arise.

Ask us how we could assist you with the preparation of suitable policies

Whatever decisions you ultimately make as an employer to tackle issues like these, you will stand the best chance of avoiding workplace conflicts in the context of employee relationships if you have clear policies in place from the outset of the employment relationship, outlining acceptable standards of conduct. Such policies should also be consistently applied in case of any issues.

Our team here at London Registrars is well-equipped to help organisations to devise the most appropriate policies for dealing with employee relationships.

To learn more about our wide-ranging company secretarial and other business and legal support services – also encompassing company secretarial practice for PLCs – please do not hesitate to call us on 07415 107 436, or to email us your query.

April 2020