During the course of 2023, the news featured several stories of senior leaders resigning from their positions following an outing of their relationships with (often more junior) colleagues. So, what are the merits of introducing a personal relationships at work policy?

What are the issues and risks for employers?

With an estimated 18% of people meeting their partner at work, workplace relationships are not at all uncommon. However, for employers, workplace relationships can present a number of management, conduct and performance issues that need to be dealt with carefully.

If, for example, a relationship is between colleagues of different seniority, there is a risk that the more senior employee might abuse their position to influence decisions relating to their partner's performance assessment, pay reviews or applications for promotion. Even if that isn't happening in practice, the perception of favouritism can create a difficult atmosphere and result in complaints or grievances from the couple's colleagues.

There are also a range of different claims that an employer could potentially be liable for after the breakdown of a workplace relationship, such as:

  • Sex and age discrimination: when two employees work in the same team, the end of a personal relationship can often lead to the breakdown of their working relationship. If that occurs, the employer may have to consider moving one of the employees to another team or, if there are no other options, dismissing them. If you target the more junior party (simply because they are more junior) and they are younger / female, they may seek to argue that they have been moved or dismissed because of their sex and / or age.

  • Harassment and sexual harassment: harassment occurs if an employee suffers unwanted conduct either related to their sex or of a sexual nature, when the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating their dignity or creating an intimating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. If one of the employees did not want the relationship to end, it is possible that they will use the proximity that they are afforded by the workplace to seek a reconciliation. This can leave employers in a position of having to deal with a move from a consensual relationship to unwanted conduct.

  • Victimisation: victimisation involves an employee being treated unfavourably because they have done a protected act, such as complaining about an incident of discrimination or harassment. If an employee receives retaliatory action because they have made such a complaint, that could result in a victimisation claim.

What would a policy include?

A personal relationships at work policy should be clear about who it applies to and when it will apply. It should remind employees of the importance of keeping business information confidential and outline any process for dealing with any conflicts of interest that may arise. You may wish to remind employees of types of unacceptable conduct and / or cross-refer to your other policies.

Employers should be realistic about what their policy can achieve. An outright ban on workplace relationships (as is sometimes seen in the US) is unlikely to be enforceable in the UK because of an employee's right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. However, it is often thought that a policy 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. If you want to require employees to disclose information about personal relationships, you need to think about your data protection obligations: use an impact assessment to consider what can be justified and manage any data you collect properly.

Employers should also remember the importance of regular and up-to-date training on discrimination issues, as this can form a pivotal part of a defence if faced with a discrimination claim following the breakdown of a workplace relationship.

Workbox by Brodies

Workbox users can access more detailed guidance on personal relationships in the workplace, together with our example policy, here.

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


Louise Usher