With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, our thoughts naturally turn to relationships. Whilst candlelight and roses are marvellous when things are sweet, it’s always good to be prepared in case things go wrong.
In the workplace context, when relationships turn sour the employer is often left treading on eggshells. In this article we consider the type of problems that can arise as a result of the breakdown of personal relationships at work and the steps that can be taken to try to contain fallout.
Possible fallout from the breakdown of a relationship at work could be:
- performance or conduct issues requiring careful management;
- genuine or spurious grievances being filed, particularly if one half of the couple has seniority over the other;
- dealing with a sex discrimination claim if one person perceives themselves to have been treated less favourably than the other, for example by being transferred against their wishes to another team or department after the break up;
- dealing with a harassment claim if one person cannot come to terms with the breakdown of the relationship and harasses the other, for example during company time or in their own time using company email;
- worse case scenario, having to deal with an unfair dismissal or stress claim if matters are left to escalate and come to a head.
Some companies have policies on relationships at work, although this still probably represents a minority of employers in Guernsey. Whether or not you have a policy in place, our advice to you on how to manage workplace relationships is likely to be the same.
Recommended steps are that you should:
- Establish a general policy that employees who enter a personal relationship will not generally be permitted to work together.
- Require your employees to inform you if they enter into a romantic relationship with a workplace colleague so that you can take any necessary protective or interventionist steps sooner rather than later. If it becomes necessary to transfer one half of the couple, take care to ensure that the decision is made on non-discriminatory grounds (ideally, any transfer should be with the transferring employee’s consent).
- If an employee refuses to transfer, or no suitable vacancy exists, you may elect to dismiss one of the employees in accordance with the terms of their contract. This should be seen as a last resort when no other course of action is reasonably open to the Company. You will need to be able to justify the dismissal by reference to the negative impact on the business of the employees continuing to work together.
- Require employees to behave in an appropriate and professional manner at work. Inappropriate behaviour at work (either overly-friendly in the “honeymoon” period or bitter in the aftermath) can lead to tension amongst work colleagues. Any inappropriate behaviour should be dealt with firmly but sensitively, initially in an informal conversation focusing on examples of the behaviour and explaining why it is unacceptable, moving onto interventionist action (including, if necessary, formal disciplinary action) if matters don’t improve.
- Consider changing reporting lines where one half of the couple is in a managerial or supervisory position over the other.
- Ensure that problems arising from the relationship (particularly when it breaks down) are dealt with quickly and fairly.
- Keep a close eye on possible opportunities for fraud, particularly where both employees work in a finance position.
Bear in mind the need to respect the private lives of your employees. Although you are perfectly entitled to ask whether two co-workers are involved in a personal relationship where this could impact on your business operations, you should avoid intrusive questioning as this could support a claim for sex discrimination (if one half of the couple is targeted) or constructive unfair dismissal.
Breaking up may be hard to do; but careful management can smooth the path for everyone.