With Valentine’s Day upon us, writes employment lawyer Debbie Coyne,we should acknowledge that it’s common for people to meet their partners at work, and that personal relationships between staff are somewhat inevitable. 

With that in mind, developing a ‘Relationships at Work’ policy for your business can be useful to ensure transparency and avoid any potential conflicts of interest or legal risks such as discrimination or harassment.  

What is Relationships at Work policy

A Relationships at Work policy should not prohibit staff from having a personal relationship with a work colleague, but instead set out guidelines for conduct within the workplace and provide a framework for managers to deal with personal relationships which may affect the business. Where a manager becomes aware that a member of their team is in a personal relationship with a colleague, they are required to treat this sensitively and, as far as possible, in confidence. 

This could mean arranging for a discrete, private meeting with the colleague to remind them of their responsibilities in the workplace and general advice on how not to let their personal life infringe on their work life and the business’ operations. 

 Most personal relationships should not have a significant impact on the workplace or efficiency of work. However, managers need to recognise their responsibility to all team members and to the needs of the business, as they could become a concern. Sometimes a personal relationship will become problematic because it adversely impacts on other colleagues or negatively affects business efficiency. Personal relationships can be particularly problematic where they involve members of the same team or are between a supervisor or manager and subordinate. 

Be aware of issues surrounding workplace relationships

From time to time, workplace relationships can cause issues, particularly if others feel those involved are getting preferential treatment.  It can also lead to personal issues being brought into the workplace more regularly, for example after a couple has had a disagreement at home.  These issues are certainly challenging for employers, who will simply have to do what they can in the circumstances to ensure fairness and that the working relationship stays professional.    

 If a relationship breaks down acrimoniously, then there is likely to be challenges faced in getting those involved to work harmoniously together.  It is unrealistic to expect them to be able to leave all of their issues at the door, but it is probably sensible, whilst demonstrating understanding, to explain to each individual that you do not expect the breakdown to impact on their work. 

 A Relationships at Work Policy should cover: 

  • What is considered a ‘personal relationship’. This can be anywhere from family relations such as living together or marriage, down to ‘seeing each other’ 
  • If and when a personal relationship should be disclosed to a line manager or HR 
  • How to deal with unwanted personal conduct, or contact following the relationship breaking down 
  • Managing personal relationships at work, such as behaviours, recruitment, management issues, and conflicts of interest 

If an employer wishes to roll out a Relationships at Work policy in light of the potential implications, it is important that the policy is clear with regards to the balance between an employee’s right to a private life and the company’s right to protect its interests. 

The best way for an employer to alert employees to this policy would be to make it part of a staff handbook available from HR or on the internet. A consultation would not be necessary, but it would be a good idea to inform staff as and when it is under development. 

Debbie Coyne is an Employment Law Solicitor at Legal 500-ranked law firm Aaron & Partners