How to manage close personal relationships at work

Employees can spend a lot of time with their colleagues, in person and (more recently) remotely. Naturally, this increases the chances of friendships and romantic relationships from developing.

Personal relationships at work may not be limited to sexual or romantic relationships, but can also include family relationships, and close business, financial or commercial relationships.  Such relationships can however affect productivity and complicate dynamics and wider relations in the workplace although, in many cases such relationships will not present a problem.

Challenges of personal relationships at work

Notwithstanding any potential benefits of close personal relationships in the workplace, in the absence of clear rules or boundaries or effective management of work place relationships, the challenges and issues they present can be as follows; 

  • Subjective and unfair recruitment decisions

Without appropriate management, personal relationships could lead to allegations of unfair recruitment decisions. In order to avoid such issues arising, employees should remove themselves from any recruitment activity involving others with which they have a personal relationship with. 

  • Preferential and inconsistent treatment of employees

If an employer has two or more employees who are related or have a personal relationship within the same team or they have a close working relationship, there is an inherent risk of preferential treatment. This would be particularly prevalent where one reports to the other. Preferential treatment may occur in the following instances; authorisation of annual leave requests, allocation of shifts, sign-off processes such as expenses.

  • Confidentiality breaches

There is a risk that personal relationships between employees may lead to an overlap of personal and professional relationships and potentially an abuse of their position of trust and confidentiality.  

  • Inappropriate behaviours

Any workplace should have their own set of rules and standards as to how their employees should behave at work. However, personal relationships have the potential to breakdown which can result in the fall out infiltrating the workplace, resulting in adverse behaviours being displayed by one or either of the parties. There can be situations where personal relationships degenerate into bullying and harassment behaviours and this can be seriously detrimental, not only to the workplace, but also to the business.

  • Grievances

If a personal relationship has broken down and one of the parties is acting inappropriately, the individual subject to the inappropriate behaviour may raise a grievance. 

The legal position 

There are no general legal rules preventing or governing relationships at work so just how far can an employer go in regulating such personal relationships at work? 

In the USA, it is common for employees to be required to enter into a “consensual relationship agreement” or “love contract” by their employer and some employers in the UK are now seeking to regulate personal relationships in the workplace.

Employers may seek an undertaking from their employees not to have a personal relationship with any fellow employee or might seek to restrict those with whom an employee may have a relationship. Employers may also try to manage conduct between those in personal relationships.

In the UK however, the Human Rights Act 1998 provides a right to respect for private and family life (Article 8).  This means that an absolute prohibition on romantic involvement in the workplace is likely to be considered disproportionate other than in very limited circumstances. Such circumstances will involve instances where the ban can be justified due to the nature of the work, such as for certain roles in the police or military.

The position in the UK therefore generally tends to be more employee friendly than in the USA owing to the potential risks a UK employer may face in terms of claims of constructive dismissal, and possibly discrimination.

Employers can adopt a more subtle approach for example, requiring employees to disclose a workplace relationship through a well-written and informative Workplace relationship policy which carefully balances the right to a private life and protecting the interests of the company. The policy should set out the expected standards of behaviour and providing a framework for managers when dealing with situations where staff have a personal relationship such as behaviours, recruitment, management issues and conflicts of interest. This policy should allow the employer to discuss the situation with the employees and take steps to avoid any potential issues e.g. a change of reporting line or a change of team or office. As with many other policies, a breach of policy on the part of an employee may lead to disciplinary action. 

Setting out the policy’s purpose and scope is a vital part in ensuring your employees  understand and buy into the rules contained within it. 

Employers can also take other steps such as: 

  • Providing training courses for managers and supervisors focusing on romantic relationships between their employees.
  • Having a well written Grievance and Anti-harassment policy and robust procedures and ensuring all employees are aware of the policies and procedures. There can be a thin line between workplace romance and possible sexual harassment, so any inappropriate behaviour or unwanted conduct should be reported and acted upon immediately. 
  • Introducing 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 an employer to take reasonable and appropriate steps to safeguard the business, although it should not be a bar to employment.

Remember that should you collect any data regarding personal relationships at work, there must be a genuine need to do so, and its purpose must be to identify and manage measures in place in order to manage risk. You must ensure that any date is stored correctly and kept private and confidential, with only those who require access to it for the purpose of administering and managing the information. 

When taking any measures to avoid a potential conflict at work, employers should be mindful of treating one person in the couple less favourably. E.g. it should not automatically be assumed that a female employee will be transferred from their role in order to maintain confidentiality if she is in a relationship with a male employee in her department.

It should also go without saying that employees in a homosexual couple should be treated no less favourably because of their relationship than someone in a heterosexual couple would be.

Employers also need to be aware that dismissing an employee for having a personal relationship at work is likely to be unfair and also possibly discriminatory on the grounds of sex. Such situations should always be handled with care and sensitivity in the interests of all concerned. Should you require any further advice then please do not hesitate to contact a member of the team at Absolute Works 0333 2005153