Can you dismiss an employee for having a relationship with a work colleague?
In recent news, the British-born Chief Executive of McDonald’s, has been dismissed for being in a relationship with another employee of the U.S fast food giant. He was based in the USA, he is divorced and the relationship was consensual, but it is McDonald’s policy that staff who have a direct or indirect reporting line to each other should not be in a relationship with each other.
In most staff handbooks you expect to see, amongst other things, a disciplinary policy, absence policy, IT policy, only occasionally do you see a policy for Relationships at Work, but should all employers have one?
Employers may wish to scrutinize these sorts of relationships more closely due to the #MeToo movement, in order to lower the risk of potential sexual harassment and discrimination claims. But should employers think about having a policy which bans staff relationships altogether?
It is very unusual to see businesses banning personal relationships at work, and this type of policy could conflict with the right to a private life under the Human Rights Act, but in light of litigation risk, it might seem sensible to consider a policy on them. The purpose of a Relationships at work policy is not to ban relationships outright, but to set out standards of expected behaviour from staff in personal relationships with a colleague. Employers may also want the Policy to state that both parties should disclose the fact that they are in a relationship, particularly if it’s a manager/subordinate one. One of the tricky questions is, at what point in the relationship should the employees be declaring it to their employer, after only one date or before they start sending out wedding invitations?
Problems can arise for employers when staff are actually in a relationship together and it’s going well, and not just when it all goes wrong. This can include having to deal with complaints of favouritism from other members of staff to potential accusations of sexual harassment if it all goes wrong. Businesses need to protect their interests too, particularly given the high cost and management time that can be spent defending Tribunal claims.
If you are considering a Relationships at Work policy for your business, you should consider the fact that all employees are entitled to a private life and that specifying the exact point in the relationship when staff should reveal it to their employer, could be difficult. However, as always, this should be balanced against business needs and the potential costs when things go wrong.
For Employment Law advice, contact Matt Jenkin.