Insight & Analysis

Do you need a ‘relationships at work’ policy?

Published: Mar 2020

For employers, consensual relationships which begin in the workplace have the potential to cause problems. But what, if anything, can be done by companies to ensure harmony is maintained? We asked an employment law specialist to clarify.

Two business people holding hands in front of the city

It’s fair to say that relationships at work are almost inevitable in many sectors. It’s common for employees to work long hours as part of a close-knit team, go on work-related trips and attend drinks functions with colleagues, clients and suppliers. If you didn’t meet your spouse at school/university or ‘through friends’, then ‘at work’ is statistically the next most likely place that you’ll meet them.

Yet employers have to tread a fine line between creating a happy and healthy work environment which fosters good working relationships, and an environment which allows employees to potentially overstep the mark, says Rachel Clementson, an employment specialist at Bellevue Law.

For employers, even consensual relationships which begin in the workplace have the potential to cause problems. “The impact on the workplace could be wide-ranging: from decreased productivity, as employees spend time gossiping or rumours spread about who is/is not in a relationship, to claims of favouritism, discrimination or even victimisation,” says Clementson. “And as with many workplace issues, there are obvious potential litigation and reputational risks.

As a result, it’s probably no surprise that organisations are increasingly looking to protect themselves against these unwanted consequences, by introducing relationships at work policies. “We are seeing an increasing interest from organisations in introducing such a policy to clarify standards of workplace conduct, set the tone for transparency and assist in tackling poor behaviour in the workplace,” she confirms.

Do you need a policy?

The answer to this question is that every organisation should consider whether a relationships at work policy would be right for their culture. “Any policy will need to be specific and tailored to your organisation,” advises Clementson. It is worth noting that these policies are useful to demonstrate to regulators that workplace issues are taken seriously. “We believe that regulator-led investigations into conduct at work will only continue to rise over coming years.”

Even though there are often benefits to a relationships at work policy, she warns that drafting such a policy can be fraught with difficulties. You have to tackle some challenging issues right from the outset. “This includes considering the ramifications for your culture and the workload impact for your HR teams. For example, if two employees embarked on a relationship, what real action could you/would you take to enforce the policy? Equally, if you don’t intend to enforce it, why have the policy in the first place?”

Creating a policy

The ease with which your organisation can adopt a relationships at work policy depends on your approach and, ultimately, the content of the policy. “Some examples we’ve seen run to only a few paragraphs and yet may be the result of hours of internal consultation and drafting,” notes Clementson. “Others are longer but lack real clarity, leaving employees uncertain of their rights and reporting obligations.”

The first issue that needs to be tackled is to decide what the company is expecting from its employees. At one end of the spectrum, many firms simply ask their employees to be sensible and sensitive about their relationships, to avoid conflict or concerns from other team members. Here, individuals would be expected to conduct themselves professionally and step back from anything that might appear to be a conflict of interest. The onus is on the employee entirely.

At the other end of the spectrum is an outright ban on all workplace relationships. These strict policies have been in the news recently. Last year, McDonald’s removed its CEO as a direct consequence of breaching a relationships at work policy.

In between these two, is a ‘declaration’ option – whereby individuals are asked to inform HR of any workplace relationships which may cause conflict or impact on others.

Just like any policy in the workplace, a relationships at work policy is a reflection of your culture and sends a signal to your employees about the kind of working environment you wish to create. If your policy is too oppressive, your staff won’t feel respected; too laissez-faire, and potential complainants will feel that the issue is not being taken seriously. It’s a question of trying to balance individual rights with the needs of the organisation and other colleagues.

“In our view, a complete ban on workplace relationships is unworkable,” states Clementson. “Onerous policies like these often result in employees covering up their workplace relationships, precisely at odds with what the policy is trying to achieve.”

What could be included?

“Your policy should explain why you need employees to disclose their workplace relationships,” advises Clementson. “Giving practical examples will help employees understand the rationale; if a manager starts a relationship with a direct report, that obvious conflict needs to be highlighted to the organisation who can decide how that situation should be handled.”

Broadly speaking, a well-considered relationships at work policy should address the following questions:

  • What is a workplace relationship? For example, when does a casual drink after work or a single date become a relationship that would be covered by the policy?

  • What action is your organisation expecting its employee to take once they are in a ‘workplace relationship’? Does the employee need to inform the HR team or take any other actions over and above behaving in a professional, impartial manner when at work? If so, what actions? How quickly do they need to act?

  • What action will your firm take in the event that a workplace relationship is disclosed – training, coaching, change of line management, change of team? Is it simply a question of recording a file note or will you take proactive steps to manage the situation?

“On its own, a relationships at work policy will not suffice to tackle the broader issues that employers face in a post-#MeToo world”, says Clementson. “But firms would be advised to consider introducing such a policy as part of its approach to changing workplace cultures and attitudes.”

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