As we begin to spend increasing amounts of time working, it should come as no surprise that many people meet their partner at work. Many employers are now beginning to impose regulations surrounding workplace relationships. But what are the relevant legal rules around this, if any, and how far can an employer go in regulating such personal relationships at work?
What does the law say about workplace relationships?
There are no general legal rules preventing or governing relationships at work. However, employers may find it problematic from a business perspective. Having individuals who are involved in a relationship working alongside each other presents various legal and practical concerns for employers. 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.
UK employers are adopting American workplace relationship policies
In the USA, it is common for employees to be required to enter into a “consensual relationship agreement” or “love contract” by their employer and some employers in the UK are now seeking to regulate personal relationships in the workplace.
This might involve giving an undertaking not to have a personal relationship with any fellow employee or might seek to restrict those with whom an employee may have a relationship. It may also govern conduct between those in personal relationships.
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, such as for certain roles in the police or military.
Can employers impose these restrictions in the UK?
While many employers in the UK might wish to copy their American cousins by imposing stringent restrictions on their staff’s behaviour, the position in the UK generally tends to be more employee friendly than in the USA. It seems likely that a UK employer who tried to force a love contract on its employees would risk claims of constructive dismissal, and possibly discrimination.
No employment tribunal would enforce the terms of such a contract if they restricted personal freedom too much. However, there are some ways in which employers can regulate their workforce’s behaviour, through more discretionary policies which do not lay down blanket bans.
How far can employers go in restricting workplace relationships?
Rather than banning personal relationships between colleagues altogether, a more subtle approach would 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.
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. For example, 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 couple should be treated no less favourably because of their relationship than someone in a heterosexual couple would be.
Does your employer have a ‘relationships at work’ policy?
These are still rare in the UK so the answer may very well be no. 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. However, inappropriate behaviour linked to the relationship is likely to be and can be dealt with under normal disciplinary rules.
A relationship at work policy can assist an employer by setting out the expected standards of behaviour and providing a framework for managers when dealing with situations where staff are in a romantic relationship. If your employer does have such a workplace policy and this is breached, it will have a potentially fair reason to discipline staff.
How can we help you?
Having difficulties because of a relationship at work or trying to manage team members who are romantically involved? Then talk to our employment law specialists today. We’ll help you figure out the best way forward for you.