A Legal Guide to Relationships in the Workplace: Yes & No’s
As we spend most of our week in the company of our colleagues, romantic relationships in the workplace can be common and are one of the most obvious ways to meet someone.
Many relationships begin when people meet at work and many of these lead to long-term partnerships. But what are the do and do not’s? Andrew Egan, Senior Associate Solicitor at Coffin Mew, explains for Lawyer Monthly.
These relationships can be highly positive and their existence should not be viewed as a problem in itself, but it is important to recognise that they can cause issues for both employer and employee.
If a relationship in the workplace affects the conduct or performance of those in question, this needs to be managed and dealt with in the same way as other conduct or performance related matters. This means adopting a fair and reasonable disciplinary process and dealing with that process in a fair and reasonable way.
Employers risk being held vicariously liable for the actions of their staff, so some may ban personal relationships at work. Others will require staff to report such relationships to the employer. These policies may also be applicable to relationships with family members at work, relationships with clients or customers, contractors, suppliers or competitors and their employees.
Some company policies may allow the employer to move an individual to another work location or department, to avoid favouritism or a hostile environment, possibly following a breakdown of a personal relationship at work or to avoid the risk of this impacting on work productivity and general staff relations. A balance will need to be struck between an employee’s right to privacy against the employer’s right to protect its business interests.
A balance also needs to be struck in terms of respecting actual partner or married relationships in the workplace, as well as being careful not to reduce the opportunities for somebody in terms of promotion and advancement and ensuring that all staff are valued and treated with respect not just by those in charge but also by work colleagues.
Businesses may need to adopt a culture change in terms of workplace behaviours. They should outline what is and is not tolerated at work and make this lasting and effective, rather than a knee jerk reaction to media coverage or external pressures. This is not always easy to implement, as many people are resistant to change, however, we live in a constantly changing world and employers must keep up with the times.
In the context of the #MeToo movement and recent high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment is a big problem in the modern workplace. Percentage figures quoted for recorded complaints from women are high. 37 per cent of women said they were sexually harassed in the workplace in the last year, 10 per cent said that harassment had led them to leave their employment, 20 per cent said sexual harassment was the norm in their workplace, and 56 per cent said that their employers either did not have or they were not aware of policies to cover this. Of course, these figures do not account for a potentially large number of unreported cases or experiences of such conduct.
Businesses can be adversely affected by such behaviours in a myriad of ways, such as staff turnover and morale, perceived favouritism or victimisation, productivity, possible conflicts of interest and potential damage to the public image or reputation of the business. The potential for reputational damage cannot be overstated. In this digital age, harassment and other behaviours in the workplace can be immediately recorded, captured, and disseminated to a global audience.
Sexual harassment in the workplace should be at the top of the agenda in terms of having the relevant policies and procedures in place. Employers should provide training for managers, supervisors and directors to address any imbalances of power between those in charge and the decision makers, and those not in charge and subject to those decisions. They should also adopt a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and be mindful of the most recent recommendations of the EHRC and Women and Equalities Committee.
Other areas which may be brought into question include an employee’s conduct outside of work, historical misconduct allegations and legal obligations or duties to report such conduct or behaviour to the police or external bodies.
Some workplaces take a firm line on such matters when they arise to prevent possible future harassment. Dismissals and disciplinary action can be taken against both senior and junior staff, as well as action against directors, board members, CEOs and other C-Suite executives.
Workplace behaviour and/or relationships deemed inappropriate and/or in breach of company policies can result in employees bringing potential claims for direct discrimination. discrimination by association, harassment and victimisation, constructive dismissal and whistleblowing.
So, what can employers do to help protect themselves and their workforce? Rather than simply emailing a policy for staff to tick off as a procedural exercise – to say that they have received and understood a copy of the relevant policy – employers need to make sure that all staff are made aware of and understand such policies. Preferably, employers should provide HR guidance, education and training, dissemination of information and/or staff meetings or workshops.