When work and personal relationships collide…

June 30, 2021

It is a fact of life that many people meet their future life partners at or through work. But in the wake of the revelations about Matt Hancock’s relationship with a work colleague, how far can (and should) businesses go in setting rules relating to personal relationships at work? 

Much of the time, these relationships don’t interfere with work. But sometimes a relationship, or certain aspects of it, will become problematic. This might arise where members of the same team are involved, or where the relationship is between a manager and a subordinate, or with a client or supplier.   Potential problems might include:-

  • Favouritism, unfairness or bias in relation to treatment at work including promotion. This could be real or perceived;
  • The potential for ‘cliques’ or division within the workplace resulting in a negative impact on team working and morale;
  • The risk of breach of professional standards or codes;
  • Potential reputational damage;
  • The risk of discrimination, harassment or bullying claims if things go wrong.

There are no specific laws governing relationships at work and businesses should look to strike the right balance between effective workplace management and being respectful of an employee’s right to a private life.  

A good starting point is educating staff as to what is, and what isn’t acceptable behaviour at work.  Having clear and publicised written guidelines or a ‘Code of Conduct’ will help to manage expectations and provides employers with a sound basis to warn employees if they fail to meet the standards expected of them. This should include guidance on conduct both during working hours and at work social events.  The need to be considerate of others and not to ‘overshare’ details of their private lives could also be emphasised.

Businesses might also consider having a policy which requires personal relationships with colleagues to be disclosed.  Such a policy needs to be balanced against the right to privacy and whilst this level of intrusion into private life may be proportionate for senior management staff, this may be trickier to justify for junior staff with no management responsibilities. Another possibility is to require disclosure of any pre-existing personal relationship as part of the recruitment process.

If such a policy is introduced, employees should be informed that any information regarding their relationship will be kept confidential and processed in accordance with data protection laws. 

If things go wrong, the situation at work should be closely managed to minimise potential fall-out.  Claims of sexual or sex-related harassment at work by ex-partners are not uncommon. Where a relationship break-up negatively impacts on a working relationship, a mediation process, or a change in team structure could be considered. However, caution should be exercised before moving one of the parties to a different role or department, as doing could potentially result in claims of constructive dismissal or discrimination.

This is undoubtedly a complex area and if in doubt, we recommend that advice is sought from one of our employment team.