Employment

Steve Easterbrook’s recent departure from his Chief Executive role at McDonald’s after admitting he was in a relationship with a subordinate colleague may have left some wondering when a personal relationship can put a job at risk. Mr Easterbrook was dismissed by the board at McDonalds after failing to comply with its policy on relationships at work – which prohibited staff from being in a relationship with a subordinate.

This is a stark reminder of the impact that someone’s personal life can have on their career – and not just for politicians or those in the public eye. What was surprising here was the seniority of Mr Easterbrook and the fact that the story became front page news. But the issues and risks that this case presented are not that unusual for employers.

What are the issues and risks for employers?

Relationships at work are not at all uncommon – it has been estimated that 1 in 5 people meet their partner at work. However, for employers, workplace relationships can present a number of management issues that need to be dealt with carefully. Employment law risks (such as the possibility of a harassment or discrimination claim if things go wrong) are not the only issues to consider. Relationships at work can present a whole range of HR issues – for example, privacy concerns or the impact of a relationship on morale where it exists in a small team.

In many cases a relationship at work will be disclosed and then managed with minimal disruption. But things can become more complex where the parties do not disclose it; or where conflicts of interest could arise. Complications can also occur if a relationship exists within a reporting line as there could be allegations of bias. In such cases, it may be possible to manage any issues by moving staff into different teams or by changing reporting lines. However, for smaller businesses that may be more difficult.

What happens if the relationship breaks down?

Things can become trickiest where workplace relationships break down, blurring the line between work and personal life. Allegations of bullying or victimisation may follow if a relationship has soured and the employer may have to deal with the fall out. Some US based employers have used so called ‘Love Contracts’ to try to avoid liability. These involve employees in a relationship agreeing that they won’t sue their employer if things turn sour between them. While the enforceability of these contracts is up for debate, they aim to demonstrate to employees in a relationship that the employer does not wish to be caught in middle in the event of a break up.

Should we have a policy on personal relationships at work?

In order to effectively manage these situations some employers have a policy relating to personal relationships at work. This can be a useful tool in setting expectations around what is acceptable, what is not and, importantly, if and when a relationship should be disclosed. Although in the UK it would be unusual to have an absolute prohibition on workplace relationships, as McDonalds does, it is not uncommon for UK employers to require such relationships to be disclosed. A relationship which could result in a conflict of interest, for example, should be disclosed so that that risk can be managed by the business.  Breaching such a policy could lead to dismissal in some cases, no matter the seniority of those involved, as seen in the case of Mr Easterbrook.

While some employees may feel that their personal relationships are none of their employer’s business (and employers should be mindful of the privacy considerations), it is important for employers to be able to take steps to protect their interests. Having a clear policy can help bring things into the open and strike the right balance. Particularly in the wake of #Metoo, employers with a personal relationships policy in place should ensure that it is taken seriously and acted on consistently across all levels of the business.

If you would like to discuss any of the matters raised in this blog, please get in touch with your usual Brodies contact.

Erin McLafferty

Solicitor at Brodies LLP
Erin is a solicitor in Brodies’ employment team. She both advises on both contentious and non-contentious employment law issues, including contract and policy drafting, settlement agreements and HR support. Erin also regularly advises on UK immigration law with a particular focus on the points based system and sponsorship of migrant workers. She also has experience in indefinite leave to remain, EU Permanent residence and spousal visa applications.
Erin McLafferty