Relationships at work - navigating the emotional and legal minefields

Relationships at work - navigating the emotional and legal minefields


Author: Helen Burgess

We spend the majority of our time at work and often meet our future partner there. But can and should office relationships be allowed or does the home connection lead to domestic issues pervading the working environment?

What does the law say?

In a pure legal sense there is nothing to outlaw or restrict relationships at work (whether that is relatives working for the same organisation or having a partner at the same workplace). However, some organisations do have policies in place concerning such relationships. For example, some employers refuse to engage any relatives of existing employees and if a relationship does arise after employees meet at work then one or both individuals must leave. This is a strict line approach and therefore the more common practice is for employers to have a policy simply restricting familial or other close connection outside of work between a manager and a direct sub-ordinate. In such situations, the policy usually states that one employee will have to move teams or if this is not possible due to lack of vacancies or the size of the company, will have to leave.

It is this latter case that may have impacted on the Ministry of Defence's decision to transfer the female commanding officer of a navy warship due to her alleged affair with an officer. In this case the navy cited the alleged breach of its code of social conduct as the reason for removing her from her post (the code governs personal relationships, which are not permitted if they compromise operational effectiveness).

In every day workplaces is this really an issue?

Yes, it may be - particularly in some professions where safety could be compromised if closer than normal working relationships existed (the police and fire services for example). However, what is a key consideration for a lot of employers is the issue of fairness and transparency without favouritsm or bias. Whilst managers will often favour certain employees over others this is usually due to their abilities, skills, commitment to the job and not because they happen to make dinner, take the bins out or do the ironing at home. If a husband reported in to his wife at work and was given better or easier tasks to do than his colleagues this would undoubtedly create ill will and animosity amongst his peers, not to mention the inherent unfairness of the situation.

There is also the concern, from an employer's perspective, of domestic arguments spilling over into the workplace or worse still, the relationship breaking down acrimoniously which makes other employees uncomfortable.

Of course, any unwanted conduct from either party involved is harassment and should be dealt with in accordance with an employer's policies and procedures.

What about Human Rights - surely an employer can't dictate who an employee can marry?

The right to a private life enshrined by the Human Rights Act does have some bearing on this but if the employer has a clear policy at the outset, based on sound business reasons and is fair, consistent and reasonable in applying it, then employees will have no basis upon which to argue that their right to privacy has been infringed.

So how can employers deal with relationships at work?

  • a policy setting out the concerns around relationships at work, why they are relevant and what will happen in such situations is important in order for the employer to be able to address any concerns around relationships which have formed at, and which impact on, the working environment
  • implementing the policy is also key. Take the example of a female sales representative who forms a relationship with her male peer. They marry and later on the husband is promoted to sales director responsible for his wife and other sales representatives. Such a reporting line is not appropriate as he would be appraising his wife, responsible for her pay review, setting her targets and assigning her leads. If the employer has a policy dealing with such a situation a conversation with both parties about how they want to deal with this should take place. In order to avoid a claim of sex discrimination the employer in this example should never just target the wife and ask her to move roles
  • if there is no such policy in place the employer is on more difficult ground and the process should be handled sensitively as the employees did not know, nor could they reasonably have been expected to know, that forming a relationship at work could jeopardise their future employment. In these cases, getting the agreement of the parties involved as to how this should be handled is essential. Dismissing one or both parties without having tried to resolve the issue first by agreement is likely to amount to an unfair dismissal (provided the employee has over two years' service)
  • in smaller organisations the only feasible and commercial option may be for the employer to allow the husband and wife reporting line to continue. However, the key would be to put in place the appropriate policies, checks and balances (which would apply to all employees) to ensure that processes were transparent and fair. This may involve two managers overseeing or being involved in all employee appraisals, pay reviews and disciplinaries.

About the author

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Helen Burgess


03700 86 5028

Helen heads the employment team in Nottingham and is well-versed in the specialist area of employment / labour law, advising HR professionals, in-house counsel, directors and managers on human resource and employment law issues. She has particular experience of TUPE advice, tribunals, business immigration, collective and union issues, whistle blowing, settlement agreements & terminations and executive appointment & exits.

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