Workplace relationships

Workplace relationship policies: what’s love got to do with it?


Love may be in the air within your organisation this Valentine's Day, but employers shouldn't assume that a relationship-specific workplace policy is the right solution to mitigate against conflict of interest.

12th Feb 2020
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When McDonald’s CEO was dismissed following his announcement of his relationship with a colleague, workplace relationships became a new priority on HR’s agenda. Office romances can come with real and perceived conflicts of interest with the potential of influencing decision-making, especially if one half of the couple is more senior than the other. But with employees having various other relationships at work, like friendships, family and foes, which present just as many conflicts of interest, what’s love got to do with it?

Workplace romance is just one example of potentially influential relationships employees have with each other at work, and managing the associated risks of all types of relationships requires an all-encompassing approach. If we single out romantic relationships, we neglect to address these risks which have just as much of a detrimental effect.

I met my husband at work just over 10 years ago and I would have been prepared to leave the company if a policy was in place that meant I couldn’t be in a relationship with him. This isn’t just a romantic gesture...

Infringing on private lives

Organisations may decide to take this too far by banning romantic relationships altogether. Such a ban comes with complicated and human rights’ risks as it has an impact on two people’s lives outside of work, a domain that should be completely separated from employers.

Don’t forget: a relationship between two people does not solely exist at work, it exists outside of work – for a greater amount of time – so such a ban dictates how two people should live their lives outside of work. 

In one of my previous articles I’ve aired my concerns on organisations taking employee wellbeing too far to the point of encroaching on employees private lives. Enforcing a policy that prohibits or limits workplace relationships perpetuates this fixation, nervously quashing any fear that comes with the risks associated with romantic relationships in a tactless one-size-fits-all approach. 

But why are we scared of relationships at work?

As with all fears, we need to look at its root cause. This isn’t about relationships, it’s about how people deal with them and the associated behaviours that come with them. If romantic relationships – or any relationships – influence how decisions are made or facilitates favouritism and unfair treatment, the root cause can be the individual’s conduct, misjudgement and abuse of position, not the relationship itself. 

The fear may also stem from the consequences of a couple breaking up. Such an event can be devastating and may jeopardise productivity, team morale or just add a particularly awkward element to any consequent grievances. However, the tension that comes with break-ups exist following any other relationship breakdown – an employee and manager who just can’t get along, a brother and sister who have fallen out over money, or two friends who were once inseparable but are now at loggerheads. 

If we lack any guidance on how employers should handle relationships, we lack any sort of consistency and fair process of dealing with the risks that may arise from these.

It’s interesting to question if those who want to dictate how relationships are dealt with at work share the same fear of losing good staff who disagree with a restrictive approach.

I met my husband at work just over 10 years ago and I would have been prepared to leave the company if a policy was in place that meant I couldn’t be in a relationship with him. This isn’t just a romantic gesture; it’s an example of a real risk an organisation would face if they implemented such a policy. 

Three ways to deal with working relationships 

But we are still sensible enough to be aware of how human behaviour can bring difficulties to the workplace, including the consequences of forming, having and ending relationships at work.

If we lack any guidance on how employers should handle relationships, we lack any sort of consistency and fair process of dealing with the risks that may arise from these, or how to respond to challenges when relationships are questioned; for example, if an employee challenges a manager promoting a family member and not them. 

Three options available to organisations are to: implement a relationship-specific policy; choose not to implement a relationship-specific policy; or incorporate guidance on workplace relationships within existing policies.

1. Creating a relationship-specific policy

Implementing a relationship-specific policy requires diplomatic sensitivity. This means careful use of language (no private relationship between two consenting adults should be deemed ‘inappropriate’ or ‘prohibited’) and should include all types of relationships – not just romantic ones – focusing on the influence these have on areas like seniority or management, and what to do in such circumstances.

There needs to be convincing and irrefutable context as to why such a policy is needed and why this is the most proportionate and low-risk approach for dealing with such matters. 

2. Having no relationship-specific policy

Choosing not to implement a relationship-specific policy is an option for organisations who see few real or perceived conflicts of interest arising from relationships.

This could be, for example, small, family-run businesses or organisations that have a flat management model. One of the principles in HR policy is that there needn’t be a policy for all eventualities and, in these types of organisations, having no official stance on workplace relationships wouldn’t be too much of an issue.

3. Adding guidance on workplace relationships within other policies

The final option – my preferred option – is to incorporate guidance on workplace relationships within existing policies, as we already do with other types of business risks that derive from private life choices and how people decide to behave.

Let’s look at alcohol consumption as an example: excessive alcohol the night before work can result in sickness absence or negatively influence an employee’s productivity, alertness and attention to detail at work. Yet we don’t restrict the amount of alcohol employees can drink in their private lives despite this behaviour consequently having a much bigger impact on businesses and costs than the effects of a relationship can potentially have.

Any negative impact personal life choices have on work, like having a hangover, are addressed by the appropriate existing policies. By incorporating guidelines on how to respectfully approach (not manage, restrict or monitor) the complications or conflicts arising from relationships within existing policies, we link any individual conduct and choice with that policy – not the sole existence of the relationship itself.

Look at your existing policies around line management, recruitment and conflicts of interest and decide where best to include instructions on how these situations are managed at the time they need to be.

Remember: it’s about the root issues, not the relationship

But, ultimately, relationships bring a risk to judgement in business decisions, as does any other type of conflict of interest. Influential roles like management are the only necessary scenario in which issues from relationships can arise, so focus only on the policies that require impartial management decisions and what to do when impartiality may be called into question.

Provide clear instructions for managers in these positions, for example, to remove themselves from processes like reward, promotion and recruitment for certain individuals where their relationship with each other may be challenged.

As with all things policy, providing principles and guidance is just one half of the coin; to ensure these are implemented fairly, HR and leaders need to follow through with this pragmatism in a consistent and reasonable approach that looks at the root issues, not the relationship.


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