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Whilst personal relationships at work may not seem problematic at first, there are potential risks ranging from conflicts of interest, to issues with confidentiality of business information, to legal risks regarding discrimination and harassment. It is therefore important that employers carefully consider how to deal with relationships in the workplace.

Ultimately, employers cannot prohibit personal relationships in the workplace, otherwise they risk being in breach of the right to respect private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, currently enshrined in domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Instead, employers should look to take a more proportionate approach to dealing with personal relationships within the workplace. That may include requiring staff to inform management of personal relationships, so long as that information is handled sensitively and confidentially. Employers should remember that information regarding personal relationships is likely to be protected under data protection laws and should process that information accordingly.

Discrimination against employees in relationships

Staff in relationships at work should not be treated differently to other staff unless their actions raise questions about their conduct. Where managers are faced with relationships at work that may cause issues in the wider workplace, they should ensure that both parties in the relationship are treated equally. For instance, presumptions should not be made about the more junior member of staff bearing the brunt of any action being taken where they are in a relationship with a more senior member of staff. Making those presumptions could lead to claims of discrimination due to age or sex.

Employee relationship policies

Where problems do arise as a result of personal relationships at work, employers will need to deal with these appropriately. Unless there is a clear policy in place setting out expected standards of behaviour, employers will only be able to take formal action where personal relationships cause staff to act otherwise than in accordance with expected standards and/or where their actions are otherwise inappropriate.

One of the main problems that arises as a result of personal relationships at work is that of harassment. Where relationships breakdown,  feelings of resentment often occur which can in turn lead to conduct directed towards members of staff for personal reasons either inside of or outside of work. In certain circumstances this could amount to unlawful harassment under the Equality Act 2010. Where managers become aware of any such behaviour, they should take action under either internal disciplinary or grievance procedures, as appropriate. Generally, employers should have in place robust policies to deal with harassment in the workplace which make clear to all staff that harassment of any form will not be tolerated.

Beyond standard anti-harassment policies, relationships at work policies can also help all parties by setting out clearly the expected standards of behaviour, the implications for breaching these standards and how managers should deal with personal relationships in the workplace.

Expected standards of behaviour might include:

  • Setting out how staff in relationships should conduct themselves at work, ensuring they are considerate of the feelings of other colleagues in their day-to-day interactions;
  • Ensuring that company property (including, in particular IT equipment and/or mobile phones) is used for work purposes only; and
  • Ensuring that confidential information is treated in accordance with any internal policies around protection of such information.

Internal policies should set out clearly what action may be taken if staff fail to meet the expected standards, by way of reference to any other relevant policies such as internal grievance or disciplinary processes.

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