Lawyer Monthly Magazine - March 2020 Edition

It’s fair to say that relationships at work are almost inevitable in the legal sector. It’s common for our people to work long hours as part of a close-knit team and to go on work-related trips and attend drinks functions with colleagues and clients. But law firms have to tread a fine line between creating a happy environment which fosters good working relationships (and even good personal relationships) and one which oversteps that mark. Even consensual relationships have the potential to cause problems for law firms. The effects could be wide-ranging: from decreased productivity, as employees spend time gossiping or rumours spread around the workplace about who is/is not in a relationship, to claims of discrimination and even victimisation (including from disgruntled team members alleging that other members of the team are receiving more favourable treatment). There are obvious litigation and reputational risks. As a result, it’s possibly no surprise that firms are increasingly looking to protect themselves against these unexpected consequences by introducing relationships at work policies. Increasing numbers of HR and employment law experts believe that a relationship at work policy can help to clarify standards of workplace conduct and have a place in setting the tone for transparency and in tackling poor behaviours in the workplace. Should we have a relationship at work policy at our firm? Though there can often be benefits to a relationship at work policy, drafting such a policy can be fraught with difficulties. You have to answer some challenging questions right from the outset. For example, if two employees were to embark on a relationship, what real action could you/would you take? If it’s not your intention to enforce such a policy, what is the point of having it? This is not to say that you shouldn’t introduce a company-wide relationship at work policy; but, before you do, there are some key things to consider. How difficult is it to set up a relationship at work policy? This depends on the content of the policy. Options range from the laissez-faire - merely giving guidance to employees to be sensible and sensitive to other team members - to more onerous options, such as requiring individuals to inform the firm when you begin a workplace relationship, or even a complete ban on all workplace relationships. When drafting your policy, it’s essential to bear in mind that employees will see any policy as a reflection of your culture. If your policy is too oppressive, your staff won’t feel respected, too lenient, and potential complainants will feel that the issue is not being taken seriously. You need to consider the type of policy which will suit the culture you are looking to foster. Be clear with your colleagues that you are trying to balance individual rights with the needs of the organisation and other colleagues. What could be included in a relationship at work policy? Caution is strongly recommended and clarity is key. In your policy, you should provide a rationale for requiring disclosure and examples of such justifications. An important example would be where a partner or line manager starts a relationship with a direct report and the manager is responsible for making compensation or promotion decisions in respect of that report. Broadly speaking, a well-considered relationship at work policy should address the following questions: • What constitutes a workplace relationship? For example, when does a drink after work or one date turn into a relationship that would be caught by the policy? • What action the firm is expecting the employee to take once they are in a ‘workplace relationship’? Does the employee need to inform the HR team or take any other measures other than to behave in a professional, impartial manner when at work? • Whatactionwill yourfirmtake inthe event that a workplace relationship is disclosed – training, coaching, change of line management, change of team? We would advise not including a complete ban on workplace relationships. In our view, such a clause would not only be draconian but also unworkable – and in all likelihood, would lead to employees covering up their relationships. Conclusion Relationship at work policies will not – on their own - tackle the broader issues that our sector faces in a post- #MeToo world. But firms would be advised to consider a policy as part of its approach to changing workplace culture and attitudes. 39 MAR 2020 | WWW.LAWYER-MONTHLY.COM Special Feature by Rachel Clementson, Bellevue Law

RkJQdWJsaXNoZXIy Mjk3Mzkz