Internal affairs: can you ban employees from having relationships?

One of legal firm Wright Hassall’s employment law experts, Rebecca Harmer, tackles the issues surrounding relationships in the workplace.

love relatiobships Q: “I’ve had problems with employee relationships affecting work in the past. Can I make it company policy that employees cannot date each other, and can I make it a sackable offence if this is breached?”

A: As employees generally spend five days a week, eight hours a day with colleagues, it’s inevitable that personal relationships will form within the workplace. However, some employers try and deter them as they can raise queries about deserved promotions vs favouritism and can make other employees uncomfortable. Also, if these personal relationships break down, there’s a risk to the employer of claims for discrimination, harassment and constructive dismissal.

It may be difficult to police a policy which states there is a blanket ban on employee relationships – especially in large companies. Furthermore, there are risks that any such ban is an invasion of an employee’s right to privacy and could be viewed as a breach of employees’ human rights. Therefore you must tread carefully. You could have a more specific policy which explains employees cannot have relationships with members of staff who they directly manage, as this could be seen as an abuse of power, but anything more than this will be difficult enforce.

Also bear in mind that the Equality Act 2010 specifically states it is unlawful to discriminate against and harass members of staff who are married or in a civil partnership.

Even where you have a policy, employees may still have relationships and you’d need to follow a fair and reasonable disciplinary procedure to dismiss them. However, where there is no impact on the organisation, other members of staff are not affected, and the employees’ work is still up to a reasonable standard, it may be difficult to fairly dismiss the employee(s).

You could instead consider providing training to managers specifically in relation to this matter, because if the relationship and/or break-up is handled in a reasonable manner, it may be a lot more beneficial to the company. For example, another person is involved with or undertakes promotions instead of the employee’s partner. Or if there’s a break-up, have a meeting with the employees and explain what is expected of them and potentially move them away from each other in the office.

Whether or not you decide to have an anti-relationship policy, you should ensure that the company has a code of conduct, equal opportunities, and anti-harassment policies in place as they set out the type of behaviour that is and is not tolerated in the workplace. You should ensure that your employees have access to the handbook and sign it when they commence employment to say they have read it. In addition, you should ensure that all members of staff receive training on equal opportunities and anti-harassment so you can demonstrate that the company has taken reasonable steps to prevent harassment.

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