Post Valentines day – les liaisons dangereuses…….

Over the last few days, social media has been awash with Valentines day frenzy and whilst we can put that behind us for another 12 months (sigh of relief) it seems an opportune time to address the controversial subject of relationships at work.

Given that we spend so much of our time in or around the workplace, there is an inevitability that employees will find themselves embroiled in relationships at work – les liaisons dangereuses……..

So, what are the issues? And whilst this may seem like a ridiculous question – what is a relationship at work?

Let’s deal with the latter question first. Whilst everyone assumes that we’re going to discuss a sordid office affair, there are numerous situations where husband and wife teams have worked together in the same business for years. Similarly, there are countless instances where people get jobs for other family members. So, if we are going to start raising issues about conflict of interest or judgement impacted due to close personal relationships, let’s understand this is about more than office liaisons. And difficult commercial decisions are compounded when family members are involved – nothing new about that.

So what are the issues – a few frequently asked questions?

Question – Two employees have started a relationship – are they obliged to advise the Company?

Answer – No, unless there is a specific policy or clause in their contract requiring them to tell you. However, if you have a suspicion, you can ask one or either of them and they can either say “yes”, “no” – categorically deny it or refuse to answer the question.

If they categorically deny it and subsequently it is clear that they lied, that can give rise to a trust issue and if they refuse to answer the question, some might take that as an admission!

Question – Does it make a difference if one person in the relationship is the other person’s line manager?

Answer – Yes, it can make a difference because the line manager may be in a position (no pun intended) to influence pay and benefits, promotion and development opportunities and clearly other people in the team will be uncomfortable because there will be a perception of favouritism.

Question – Can one person be asked to leave?

Answer – Yes but they can refuse! If you insist that one person must leave, there is a strong likelihood that you could end up with an Employment Tribunal unless the issue is dealt with carefully and a mutual agreement is reached with agreed terms of exit via a settlement agreement.

It is also important to note that it is unlawful for employers to treat women or men less favorably because of their sex and if only one person is being asked to leave because of the relationship, there may be grounds for a sex discrimination claim.

Question – Can a business forbid relationships at work?

Answer – They can try but they are very difficult and somewhat impracticable to police and it can depend on the level of the employees involved. Each case would have to be taken on its merits and an assessment made as to whether a relationship poses a risk to the business or a conflict of interest. Also, policies which ban relationships at work run the risk of breaching Human Rights and if dismissal is being contemplated in these circumstances, there is a strong likelihood of a tribunal claim.

Question – Two employees in a relationship caught in a compromising position – is this a potential dismissal offence?

Answer – Yes, very likely – an employer requires employees to adhere to certain rules and standards of behaviour whilst at work or on company premises. Depending on the nature of the circumstances, the employer may be entitled to take the view that this is a gross misconduct offence.

However, the situation does not remove the requirement to carry out an investigation, conduct a disciplinary hearing and offer a right of appeal. And if it is clear that a misconduct offence has been committed, both employees should be subject to the same penalty.

Question – what safeguards can employers put in place to manage relationships at work?

Answer – Firstly, good practice would say that it is not a good idea for two people to be in a relationship where one line manages the other.

Secondly, assess the risk in terms of commercial information. Both employees are likely to have confidentiality clauses in their contract, but there may be situations where one person in the relationship is privy to greater levels of confidential information or have wider knowledge of the business strategy including acquisitions, payroll, business sale etc. Such issues must be dealt with on an individual and case by case basis.

Also, decisions for instance – regarding disciplinary action, grievance investigations or redundancy selection should not be made by a person who has a conflict of interest due to a personal involvement with an individual.

Question – what happens if a relationship between two work colleagues ends and it impacts at work?

Answer – Deal with it quickly. You are entitled to have a conversation and make it clear that whilst the relationship may have ended, they still have to work together and they should not bring their problems to work. If these situations are allowed to fester, it will have a detrimental impact on team morale so they should be addressed.

Finally, in terms of all the answers to the questions, it makes no difference if the employees in question are in a same sex relationship.

Adrian Berwick offers HR support to business and if you want any advice on people issues related to relationships at work, call 07885 714771 or contact