Workplace romance – can I be sacked for having a relationship at work?

Workplace romance – can I be sacked for having a relationship at work?

The recent high-profile dismissal of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook after he had a relationship with an employee means that the topic of workplace relationships is very much in the news.

So, what does it mean? Can you be sacked for having a relationship at work?

The short version in the UK is no.

Article 8 of the Human Rights Act enshrines your right to a private life, and that includes consensual relationships with people you meet at work.

But, as the McDonald’s case shows, it isn’t always that simple, and starting a relationship with that lovely person who sits three desks down may not be as straightforward as you think.

It’s against the rules

The first issue might be in your contract or employee handbook. Many businesses, wary of harassment claims, or just aware of the complexities that a personal relationship can add to the office politics mix, seek to prevent them by adding a clause in one, or both, of these documents.

If the company policy says workplace relationships are not ok (like the McDonald’s case) then you may feel its unreasonable, but they could have grounds for taking issue with it.

Recognising that we probably spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with our family or friends, most sensible businesses don’t seek to outright ban relationships, but they will ask you to declare it.

This makes sense if you’re in a position where there could be undue favouritism or influence because of the relationship, particularly if one of you is the other’s manager.

It’s not against the rules, but you’re also line manager/report

Even if the handbook doesn’t say you have to, this is the time to voluntarily inform your business about the relationship and to take steps to ensure, as far as reasonable, that your relationship can’t impact on your work.

This is so much easier in a large organisation where a simple change of line management can resolve most of the potential issues.

It’s a lot trickier in small organisations where there may not be an alternative manager available. But even here, declaring the relationship and agreeing sensible rules to ensure work decisions are transparent is possible.

Having a conversation with the business about how pay, promotion, work allocation and so on will work can help to protect you from allegations of favouritism in the future.

It’s not against the rules, no one is line managing anyone else, but you are awfully distracted.

According to Robin Dunbar (he of Dunbar’s number fame) starting a new romantic relationship is emotionally expensive on our other relationships, and will, on average, cost us two close friendships.

We simply don’t have the emotional and mental bandwidth to maintain all our existing relationships and start a new one without something giving.

If you translate this to the workplace, and the object of your affections is in your workplace, then that’s a lot of distraction and your boss may well have something to say about it.

Drops in work performance, distraction, lack of attention to detail, and PDAs are likely to get you a ‘chat’ at the very least and a more serious conversation if your work is really suffering.

You’re quite senior in the business

Like the CEO of McDonald’s.

Let’s face it, regardless of what it says in the contract or handbook some of the 375,000 people McDonald’s employ will be in relationships with each other, and the business probably doesn’t do much about it, because it has little to no impact.

But like it or not, if you are in a senior and visible role then you will be held to a higher standard of behaviour and you will be expected to model the organisation’s values. The suggestion that you are in the position to directly, or indirectly, create favourable circumstances for your partner is a hard one to deny and is likely to create doubt about your motivations and judgement.

This seems to have been one of the key issues raised in the Easterbrook dismissal, the board said the relationship showed poor judgement and in a statement to his employees Mr Easterbrook said “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on,”

One of you is married to someone else

Well that does make it complicated, but again, you have a right to a private life and your employer has no legal right to sit in judgement on that.

Issues can arise in organisations that have a strong religious ethos or expressed values set where your involvement in an extra-marital relationship brings your commitment to that ethos into question. The business may feel they have a case that there is a failure to demonstrate the required behaviours and that the relationship brings the individual’s judgement and suitability into question.

It can damage your standing in the business, and your reputation, but being married to someone else isn’t a factor that your employer can add to the misconduct pile.

However, the covert nature of this kind of relationship can be the most problematic element, and the one most likely to lead to disciplinary action if it comes to light.

Are you leaving work early to meet up? Arranging opportunities to attend the same conferences and events? Falsifying records to cover up not being where you should have been? Extra mileage and expenses being claimed?

Regardless of why you may have chosen to do any of those things, they are, in and of themselves, breaches of policy and will normally lead to disciplinary action.

You had a relationship, but now its over and things are…tricky

This is probably the main reason why businesses would rather you just didn’t.

A consensual relationship between two employees isn’t necessarily a problem, and there might even be a wedding to buy a fetching hat for, but if that relationship ends, the fall out can have far reaching consequences.

Of course, any employee whose relationship ends is likely to be less than their best at work, but if you both work in the same place and have to see each other every weekday it adds an extra dimension.

Sometimes one or both of the parties will ask for a transfer, again this is easier in larger organisations and most businesses are sympathetic and will seek to accommodate requests if they can.

However, it is important that businesses don’t treat one party less favourably than the other here. Moving one person into a role that has fewer prospects/commission/bonuses could potentially lead to allegations of discrimination and costly tribunals.

If you can’t or won’t move, then there’s a risk that your private issues can bleed into your workplace.

Businesses would expect both parties to act like adults and maintain professional standards, but it can be tricky to negotiate post break up work relationships, and sometimes help is needed.

Workplace counselling, support from managers and even mediation can make the difference here and switched on employers who want to keep good staff would be well advised to offer them.

Crickey, that all sounds dreadful, I’m never smiling at anyone at work again.

Most workplace relationships are not problematic at all, its where a lot of people meet their partners and attempting to legislate them out of organisations won’t work.

So, what can you do?

For employers the key is to be clear about what is and isn’t ok, to set your expectations for your staff and to deal sensitively with issues as they arise.

You might like to look at what your handbook says, train your managers about the organisation’s values and expectations, brief them on policy and employment law, and teach them how to manage the situation when it happens.

For employees its about being open and transparent with your employer and recognising that, for them, your relationship is secondary in importance to your employment.

And with Christmas Office Party season fast approaching do please remember that the office ‘Do’ still counts as official work time. But that’s another story…

If you’d like to know more about training your managers and developing robust handbooks and policies get in touch. We’d love to help.