Does an employer have a say in their employees' private lives?

29 November 2019

Employers recognise that employees working together often form friendships and in some cases personal relationships. Each employer will always encourage good professional relationships in the work place, especially when welcoming a new employee or when moving employees between departments.

However, when a relationship moves from a working relationship to a personal relationship to what extent do you, as an employer, have a say?

Recently, in the US, McDonald’s fired its CEO for having a romantic relationship with a colleague which the Company concluded ‘demonstrated poor judgement’. McDonald’s has a published a ‘standards policy’ which prohibits personal relationships between employees who have a “direct or indirect reporting relationship”. Clearly the seniority of the CEO was a significant factor in the decision making in this case, although it does raise questions about the practicalities of relationships at work.

Of course, in general, personal relationships are a positive benefit of working life. However, there may of course be some complications and so it is important to understand your position and options as an employer.

An employer should not:

  • attempt to simply ban personal relationships at work. Article 8 of human rights act 1998 provides for respect for private and family life and this should be observed;
  • make decisions purely based on the existence of the relationship rather than any impact that relationship may have; or
  • behave in any way that may be perceived as controlling and/or unreasonable.

An employer may:

  • outline reasonable expectations in a policy. This may require an employee to declare a personal relationship to HR in certain circumstances, i.e., if there is a line management/reporting relationship between the parties;
  • sensitively ask questions of the individuals involved, particularly if their relationship may cause a conflict of interest i.e., if one party makes appraisal and pay review decisions relating to the other party. Discussions should take place confidentially and should relate to matters which directly link to establishing impact in the workplace;
  • monitor the impact, if any, the relationship has in the workplace. Such monitoring must, however, be reasonable. Remember that an impact can be positive, such as an improved atmosphere and/or motivation;
  • make reasonable changes in the workplace to reduce any impact, i.e., a change or peer review of line management where possible. Bear in mind that any change will be subject to discussion and consultation with the affected parties; and
  • take disciplinary action if behaviours negatively impact on the workplace.

In the US, some companies go a step further and require parties to sign a ‘love contract’. This legally binding document confirms that the relationship is consensual, and aims to protect the employer against liability if the relationship fails and sexual harassment in the workplace could potentially become a factor.

This is a rather extreme example though, a well written and reasonable policy should be all you need.

If you have any questions about the above, or if you would like to consider a policy on relationships at work, please contact Kerri Constable or Laura Cerasale.