Personal relationships at work – and why having a good HR policy to support is essential

28 September 2023

Whether your workplace is fully remote, onsite or hybrid; work plays a big part in many of our lives and so it is no surprise that professional relationships sometimes progress into personal ones. In most cases this does not present a problem to an organisation, but employers should be aware of potential issues that may arise and consider how to mitigate any risks.

'It’s my life!'

It should be acknowledged that many workplace relationships are not a bad thing and can in fact be a very positive outcome of work. They are also inevitable, However, where the relationship is with another employee, a client or a supplier, it is reasonable for an employer to consider any potential risk, as they would with any other part of the business. This is good corporate governance.

Employees do, of course, have a right to a personal life and so employers must take care in their approach to developing a policy that strikes a reasonable balance. This includes making sure that any information an employer requires an employee to divulge is proportionate to any potential risk.  

This will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • the role of each individual;
  • how much contact they have day to day in relation to their work;
  • the nature of the professional relationship; and
  • whether one has decision making authority relating to the other (internal or external).

It is reasonable for an employer to require an employee to disclose a personal relationship, and managers must be equipped to handle that information appropriately and complete an assessment of risk based on the above factors. In many cases, the risk will be low and no action will need to be taken, but in some cases a more thorough assessment of risk may be needed.

What could go wrong?

Where personal relationships exist, it is important that employees understand that whilst they are at work, the relationship needs to stay professional. It should be clear that displays of affection and sharing details of the relationship, whilst at work, are not appropriate. Similarly, they must be careful not create a conflict or an uncomfortable working environment.

In almost all circumstances, a personal relationship with a direct report, or someone more junior in a team structure, is going to cause conflict and problems with the rest of the team. It is unlikely this scenario would be sustainable in most instances. Likewise, senior management teams and human resources departments should hold themselves to higher standards, due to the influence they have in the organisation and their impact on other peoples’ careers. We have seen in the media, recently, some high profile exits from senior leadership, due to personal relationships in the workplace.

Whilst a personal relationship should be disclosed, if a personal relationship at work has broken down, this too can create a different type of conflict at work and/or a difficult working environment. This too should be raised with a manager or human resources. Such matters can be difficult for everyone involved and need managing sensitively and with care.

The benefits of a clear written policy

Provided a policy is written well by a HR professional and clearly explains the reasons for wanting to be informed about personal relationships at work, employees have no need to be concerned about making disclosures. However, employers should make it clear that any breach of policy may lead to disciplinary action (this can be written into the policy). The action taken will likely vary from case to case but may require a wider investigation, to understand the reasons why the policy was breached and whether the employer has been exposed to risk as a result.

For more HR advice and guidance, please contact Kerri Constable.