The recent ousting of McDonald’s CEO for having a workplace relationship provides a useful chance to look at the issue of office romances and ask ourselves – what is appropriate for businesses nowadays?
The US approach
I worked in the City of London in the early noughties. There was a lot of eye rolling amongst my employment law colleagues at our American-owned clients who had so-called ‘love contracts’. In essence these prohibited romantic relationships with colleagues – which presumably was in the McDonald’s contract. What nonsense, we said to each other.
Thinking about it now, most of us were (or had been) in relationships with people we met through work. Like doctors and other busy working types who have little life outside of work, the only people young lawyers usually get the chance to meet are work colleagues. If you can’t date them then what on earth are you going to do for romance?
Large US-owned businesses have continued to pursue a trend of banning workplace relationships and this has now spread to other large organisations – although sometimes only at management levels. Some bans are not a blanket policy across the entire business, but instead only prohibit relationships within departments or where there is a significant power imbalance by virtue of seniority.
Decide what is reasonable for your organisation
I expect you’ll agree that the more targeted such a ban is towards the precise areas of ER/legal risk that you and I have to deal with when an office relationship goes wrong, the (potentially) more reasonable such a ban may feel.
It may feel over the top to prevent you from dating someone who works in another division or department of the company, but more reasonable if it were within the same team, and certainly very much more reasonable where one of you was involved in the line management of the other.
What are the legal risks?
In terms of what the risks are, there is of course the obvious legal risk of one party deciding (sooner or later) that the other party’s attention is unwanted. This may be right from the outset, or after one or two dates, or after a much longer relationship. Whatever the duration of the relationship, once it goes wrong and two individuals have to keep working together, the risk of a claim related to harassment (or similar) arises. There is also the potential that you may have to end up moving or exiting one party.
Even without thinking about the legal implications, there is of course the problem of all the disruption (gossip, rumours, flirting, tears and general distraction from one’s duties) that office relationships, good and bad, can cause. Time spent fluttering your eyelashes or gazing longingly at a colleague for hours are hardly helping you crack on in a productive way with your work (so I’m told).
From my perspective as an employment lawyer who mostly defends employers, my experience is that many sexual harassment claims could certainly be avoided if it were a clear rule that there was to be no fraternization in the workplace.
It brings to mind the advice I had to give on a situation where a male CEO was systematically (and intentionally) sleeping his way through all of the several female directors on their Board. You will be pleased to hear that it stopped when the CEO failed to ‘succeed’ with the HR Director. She spotted the pattern and called his behaviour out. The point is, of course, that his sexual urges would hopefully have been restrained (or at least reduced) if he had been aware that he would be in breach of contract by such action. Not a guaranteed outcome, but at least a strong deterrent.
What’s the solution?
My experienced view is that there is real benefit to employers in having – as standard – a contractual ban on any workplace romance where one party is involved in the line management of the other or where there is a significant power imbalance (however that might be measured in the organisation).
The downside of such an approach is that some office romances and relationships would fail to materialise. The advantages however are considerable.
Email Luke or call 0117 325 0921