It’s important to remember that personal relationships at work may not be limited to sexual or romantic relationships, but can also include family relationships, very close friendships, and close business, financial or commercial relationships, any of which can complicate dynamics and wider relations in the workplace.

With such a broad definition, it would generally be regarded as onerous and unrealistic to interfere with an employee’s rights to a private life by restricting or imposing an outright ban on personal relationships at work. Employers are therefore encouraged to accept that such relationships are part and parcel of employing people.

However, it can be beneficial in terms of workplace performance and morale, and legal risk management, to consider how personal work relationships may affect your business and that you can be satisfied you have done everything within your power to accommodate personal relationships at work. Clarity and encouraging a culture of honesty and openness are key principles in ensuring both you and your employee are protected at all times.

Are Personal Relationships at Work a Good or Bad Thing?

With the average person spending 90,000 working hours over the course of their lifetime, it’s highly likely romantic relationships will begin at work. But it is not always bad news. In most cases, relationships in the workplace cause no problems for the employer, and they can in fact bring many benefits, such as:

  • Increased personal interest in the business’s success.
  • Greater commitment towards the business.
  • Attaining wider business knowledge because of employees discussing their roles and issues with one another.
  • Easing the search for employees and reducing its cost by introducing a partner or family member to the business (although this must be as part of a consistent and fair selection process).
  • Recommendations from existing employees will usually be for like-minded people who are more likely to fit into the culture of your business.
  • Reduces costs for couples, such as halving travelling to work expenses, or saves doubling-up on medical insurance.
  • Helps to make you a visible and recommended local employer by recruiting individuals from the same locality.
  • Risks of Personal Relationships at Work

Workplace relationships do have the potential to be detrimental to a business in the absence of clear rules or boundaries or effective management. The risks can include:

Preferential and inconsistent treatment of employees: where two or more employees are related or have a personal relationship within the same team, you should consider the potential impact or perceived impact on other team members and working practices. This is particularly important where one reports to the other. For example, consider how annual leave requests are handled, how shift patterns operate, and other sign-off processes within your business, such as expenses. All such management and workforce decisions should be made consistently and fairly.

Confidentiality breaches: employers will want to avoid situations where an employee has abused their position of trust and confidentiality due to a close relationship. Those who have personal relationships should not work together if there is any risk of a breach of confidentiality due to the overlap of their personal and professional relationship.

Inappropriate behaviours: each workplace will have their own set of rules and standards as to how their employees should behave at work. However, there are occasions where personal relationships sour and the impact of such a breakdown can infiltrate the workplace, resulting in adverse behaviours being displayed by one or either of the parties.

Conflict of interest: if your employee has a personal relationship with a close business associate, this can create a conflict with the professional duty they owe to you. Common examples include employees who hold second jobs with other employers.

Subjective and unfair recruitment decisions: personal relationships could lead to allegations of unfair recruitment decisions if not managed appropriately. To avoid such issues arising, if an employee has a personal or family connection to a job applicant, ideally, they should not take part in the recruitment process.

Grievances & unlawful behaviours: if a personal relationship has broken down and one of the parties is acting inappropriately, you risk a grievance being raised if the matter is not managed appropriately within the workplace. If you have introduced measures to address conflict between parties who have personal relationships but have done so in a discriminatory or unfair way, you should be mindful this too can lead to grievances being raised.

Likewise, if a relationship breakdown or disagreement results in workplace discrimination (such as bullying or harassment) or misconduct (such as physical altercations), you as the employer must take action to deal with the situation in a fair and lawful way, typically as prescribed by your relevant organisational policy.

Legal Considerations

In the UK there are no specific laws governing personal relationships at work, however there is broader employment law such as the Equality Act 2010 and the Protection of Harassment Act 1997 that may apply when managing such workplace relationships. The Equality Act prevents direct and indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation and the Protection of Harassment Act 1997 allows claims to be brought in the civil court for harassment.

In the context of personal relationships at work, there may be issues of sex discrimination or harassment, particularly if the relationship breaks down. Sex discrimination can occur where a female employee has been asked to leave over a male employee because of their relationship or the breakdown of it. And if an employee believes they have experienced harassment because of their gender, this could also amount to discrimination. In extreme cases, employees may be entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal in an employment tribunal.

If you are addressing issues arising from personal relationships through your disciplinary process, ensure you have the justification to do so. For example, you must be able to reasonably show that the consequence of the relationship has had a detrimental effect on the business.

Mishandling a disciplinary process, or continuing without reasonable justification for doing so, could render any action unfair, including fighting a case for unfair dismissal. And it must be said that depending on the severity of the situation, dismissing an employee could be seen as draconian and cause ill-feeling with other employees within the workforce.

Measures you can Take

Once aware of some of the challenges you face with personal relationships at work, it’s important to consider what measures you can take to address and reduce the potential risks. Any practical steps taken to manage personal relationships at work must be fair, lawful and reasonable, and not discriminate on the grounds of a “protected characteristic” (gender, marital status, age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex). Examples of measures you can take include:

  • Consider the introduction of an employee declaration form where job applicants are asked to give details of any personal relationships they have with existing employees within the company. This allows you to take reasonable and appropriate steps to safeguard the business, although it should not be a bar to employment.
  • Introduce a requirement that existing employees report any personal relationships.
  • Restricting those employees involved in recruitment and selection who have a personal relationship with the person being interviewed, whether that is for an external or internal role.
  • Meet with the employee(s) following notification of a relationship to consider and discuss how the relationship may impact the workplace and deal with any potential conflicts of interest, agreeing appropriate measures where necessary.
  • If two employees within the same team have a personal relationship, consider meeting with them to consider the impact or perceived impact the relationship may have on their colleagues, identifying measures that can be introduced to avoid any resulting issues.
  • Where a relationship exists between a manager and an employee, consider an alternative line manager or transferring one of them to another part of the business. The alternative role must be suitable and of the same level of seniority, and transfers must not discriminate on any of the protected characteristics.
  • If you do decide to move an employee to an alternative role, ensure you follow the correct procedure to redeploy the individual and vary their contract terms.
  • Create a policy that sets the standards for what is expected and what is and is not acceptable behaviour and details actions to be taken if problems arise which will help you to ensure that such situations are handled effectively and consistently.

At Hallidays HR, we offer a variety of services to assist you in navigating the complexities of a multi-generational workforce. Whether you’re looking to recruit new talent, develop bespoke onboarding processes, or provide line manager training, we are here to support you throughout the entire employee life cycle. If you would like to discuss any of the above in more detail, then please do not hesitate to contact us on 0161 476 8276 or email hr@hallidayshr.co.uk. And of course, visit our LinkedIn page.