Bishop & Sewell

The rapid fall from grace of ITV’s This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield has once again turned the spotlight on relationships in the workplace.

Whilst there is no suggestion that Schofield has broken the law – in an interview with the BBC he said that the “relationship was unwise, but not illegal” – it has raised the uncomfortable question of how those in a position of authority, whether a celebrity presenter or a manager in the workplace, use that position.

Increasingly, employers are turning to workplace relationship policies to set clear boundaries. When workplace relationships sour, there are often issues which stray beyond that personal relationship affecting colleagues and sometimes giving rise to employment claims.

Workplace relationship policies, also called love contracts, are commonplace in the US. McDonalds, the fast-food restaurant chain, famously has a ‘non-fraternisation policy’ that bans direct and indirect relationships with an employee in a junior position. For its CEO, UK national Steve Easterbrook, that effectively meant no workplace relationships are permitted at all and eventually cost him his job.

Those in senior positions in the workplace are naturally held to greater scrutiny from colleagues and external stakeholders. Whilst UK employers rarely adopt an all-out ban on workplace relationships – this would be difficult to enforce and would likely prove unpopular on the basis that it invades privacy – workplace policies that clearly explain the standards expected are commonplace.

Employers need to be alive to the risks of a relationship that might be considered an imbalance of power. Would, for example, a younger employee feel their performance and success in the workplace is reliant on their continued relationship? Or could that relationship be seen as the means to more favourable working terms? Either way, it is easy to see how things can become complicated.

Policies that address relationships in the workplace should focus on any potential conflicts of interest that might arise, favouritism, abuses of authority, reporting lines and harassment. Whilst the policy may not restrict a relationship, it could require that relationship to be brought to light so that an employer can be alert to any potential issues further down the line.

A failure to disclose a relationship in line with a policy could in itself amount to disciplinary action.

For more information on office romances read Hearts, flowers and work.

Contact our employment team

Rhian Radia is a Partner and Head of the Employment team. For initial advice or to arrange a meeting with one of our Employment team, please email or call on 020 7631 4141

The above is accurate as at 06 June 2023. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times. 

The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Category: Blog, News | Date: 6th Jun 2023

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