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19 July 2023

Relationships in the workplace

5 mins

There is a tendency for an employer to bury its head somewhat when it comes to its involvement in relationships between employees in the workplace.

Notably, we have recently seen the media storm that arose from Philip Schofield’s admission that he lied about a relationship with a much younger colleague at ITV. This has had the effect of destroying his career and reputation, and ITV has been subject to immense criticism over its knowledge and handling of the situation. In this blog, we look at the wider issues that employers should consider should they find themselves in similar circumstances.

ITV isn’t alone in getting into difficulties navigating workplace relationships. Quite often employers, not only confined to those in the media industry, have chosen to ‘turn a blind eye’, tactically overlooking issues involving the conduct of key members of staff that they wouldn’t otherwise.

So, what should employers do to manage this type of risk?

Put in place a policy on relationships in the workplace

Banning staff from having a relationship with a colleague will usually be an unjustified interference with their right to a private life. Sensibly, most employers don’t go down this route, however, this doesn’t mean guidelines can’t be put in place to assist everyone involved to understand what is reasonably expected of them in the event they decide to enter into a relationship with a colleague.

The best way to strike a fair balance between protecting your legitimate business interests and the rights of your staff, is to put in place a policy on relationships in the workplace. It’s common for the focus of such policies to be on relationships where one party is in a position of authority or power over the other, and it’s important to know about these types of relationships for a number of reasons: 

  • There is likely to be a risk of conflict of interest between the senior party’s responsibilities and their relationship – particularly if they supervise their partner at work. With the best will in the world, they will find it difficult to be objective about the performance of their partner, which, in turn, may impact their partner’s pay, bonuses and other benefits.  
  • It may create resentment within the wider team if co-workers believe (rightly or wrongly) that a colleague is receiving preferential treatment because of their personal relationship with their boss or superior. 
  • The parties may share confidential information that they wouldn’t normally be privy to.
  • Things obviously go wrong, and relationships do sometimes end, so it is important to set out the expectations in these circumstances. In practice, it’s incredibly hard to separate work and private life when things go sour so the impact on the business, the team as a whole, and any potential liability in the form of discrimination, must be considered.
  • Whilst it is reasonable to assume that most people in a relationship have entered into it freely, this can become ambiguous where there is a considerable age gap. The Philip Schofield episode clearly demonstrated that heterosexual relationships where there is a large age gap may be more socially acceptable, or less likely to be questioned as to whether consent was present between parties when compared to same-sex relationships. Clearly, each situation should be assessed as fairly, reasonably, and consistently as possible.
  • People in positions of power can influence decisions about who to hire and fire. Junior members of staff may feel that they have to accept an invitation to go out with someone senior because they are worried that their job is at risk if they say no. They may also worry that they won’t be believed if they complain. It is usually only possible to identify problems if an employee themselves is willing to talk about it, providing assurance against victimisation and support. Otherwise, try to ensure that colleagues are aware and conscious of one another and possible warning signs to look out for (such as in an abusive, inappropriate or coercive relationship), so they feel confident in flagging concerns to the employer.  

Your policy should clearly explain when an employee has to tell you about their personal relationships, and the person they need to talk to (which could be HR) to cover people who work in the same department (even if they’re on the same level), or if they are in a relationship with a client, supplier or customer. Most policies also include family relationships too.

The policy should also explain why you need this information and what you will do with it. For example, you may have to re-allocate line management, move one party to a different team (with their consent) or change their shift patterns (again with their consent) to ensure that their relationship doesn’t impact their work. 

Encourage a culture of speaking out

If your organisation encourages staff to raise concerns (and supports them once they’ve done so), you will be able to deal with any issues at an early stage. However, giving employees the confidence to report and hold others accountable will only work if they know that they won’t suffer any adverse consequences for voicing genuine complaints. Staff should not be punished for speaking out – particularly against people in a position of power.

Aside from the threat of retaliation, employees won’t speak out if they don’t trust management to do anything with the information. Whether that means downplaying the issue or ignoring it entirely, if your staff don’t believe that you’ll take action, they won’t bother to say anything. 

It’s helpful to have a policy to clearly explain what staff should speak out about and how they go about doing it. 

Our Employment team can assist your business in managing workplace relationships, get in touch to find out more.  

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