No man (or woman) is an island and, as we all spend increasing amounts of time working, it is unsurprising that many people meet their partner at work. What are the relevant legal rules around this and how far can an employer go in regulating such personal relationships?
What does the law say?
There are no general legal rules preventing or governing relationships at work. However, many 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 breaks down.
What’s “over there” is coming over here…
It is common in the USA 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. However, employers in the UK will find it very difficult to enforce similar agreements because 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 .
How far can employers go?
Rather than banning personal relationships between colleagues altogether, a more subtle approach requiring staff simply to disclose a workplace relationship – so that the employer can take pre-emptive steps to avoid conflicts of interest (for example, by changing reporting lines) – 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 also goes without saying that employees in a homosexual couple should be treated no less favourably because of their relationship than someone in a hetrosexual 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.