Should you ban personal relationships in your business?

Wednesday February 12, 2020

Famous fast food chain McDonald’s made the headlines at the end of last year. This time it wasn’t due to a trendy makeover of a McMeal. But to report that CEO Steve Easterbrook had been fired for having a relationship with an employee. Awkward.

Although the relationship was consensual, and it wasn’t revealed if the other person was a direct report of Mr Easterbrook, it was said to be in violation of McDonald’s clear and longstanding policy against conflicts of interest.

Was McDonald’s decision to dismiss justified? It is not uncommon for a business to have such a policy in place. Many may restrict personal relationships at work or request that employees disclose them.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. A policy should come down to the unique needs of a business and its company culture. In this case, McDonald’s showed that rules are rules, no matter your level of seniority.

The risks of avoiding awkwardness

Not having any sort of policy on personal relationships in the workplace can be risky. The #metoo movement has highlighted how things can go terribly wrong if advances are unwanted. In fact, McDonald’s returned to mainstream media soon afterwards in a separate story reporting a staggering volume of sexual harassment claims from employees.

The franchise has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and unwelcome flirting. But in light of these reports, perhaps enforcing it or training managers should be up for review. Sexual harassment causes harm and tribunal claims can reach thousands of pounds.

There are other factors to take into consideration on the subject of relationships between employees. For example, are they distracted? Are they squabbling? Are colleagues more interested in this narrative than their work?

Whilst the love endorphin has its benefits, such as boosted happiness and positivity, relationships are rarely always smooth sailing. And if one starts to distract or impact employees, it’s a problem. Productivity can take a hit and if a relationship turns sour, there is a risk of conflict, or worse.

How to manage lovestruck employees

Before you start installing cubicles and applying blanket censorship, it’s worth noting that a complete ban on workplace relationships would be arduous. Strict rules like this can encourage employees to be dishonest and sneak around. And assumptions can lead you into dangerous territory, such as risk of discrimination, particularly where same sex individuals are involved.

You may however like to consider a ban on relationships between managers and subordinates, where the balance of power is one sided and can directly impact work. These relationships carry a risk of favouritism and can be a liability for your business.

But rather than banning all personal relationships in your business, a few well-constructed rules should be enough to keep the peace and see employees working well together. For example, your policy on personal relationships may want to deter public displays of affection and encourage courteous behaviour towards others (in the event of a breakup).

Having a policy is simply the first step towards protecting employees and your business. It is essential that training is provided to ensure that rules are followed, and company values are respected.

Support from your HR Dept

If romance is blossoming in your business and you have some questions on how to approach the topic of relationships with employees, call us. We’ll make sure your actions are legally compliant and suggest a policy that fits the unique needs of your business.

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