Workplace relationships – check out the policy

Recruiters have been urged to find out if clients have a workplace policy outlawing workplace relationships.

The call follows this week’s news about McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, who has been fired after he had a relationship with an employee.

Commenting on the implications of such situations for recruitment agencies and the agency workers they place with clients, Melanie Stancliffe, partner at law firm Cripps Pemberton Greenish, told Recruiter agencies should find out if their client has any policy against “fraternisation” among staff.

“If so, the recruiter will have to raise it with the candidate and say that they can’t put them forward if they are in a relationship with any staff of the client. It isn’t that common and recruiters won’t need to tell candidates more than the expectation of ‘no office relationships’. The same applies where businesses won’t employ people from the same family. It may put candidates off, as people tend to meet at work, but the McDonald’s case shows their job could be on the line.”

Meanwhile Stephen Jennings, partner solicitor at Tozers Solicitors, told Recruiter having clear rules and setting clear expectations can be helpful to any employer to avoid such risks related to workplace relationships from arising. 

“Policies should be clear about what types of relationship are banned and the consequences of a breach, and policies should be enforced across the board.

“In this case, the CEO breached internal company rules about relationships. It is impossible to enforce a policy if senior executives ignore it, so this would have been difficult to overlook.

“As regards agency workers, they will typically have to follow the policies of the clients with whom they are placed (as well as those of the agency), so it may be prudent to clarify in advance which policies apply and, if there is a restriction (especially on agency workers undertaking a longer-term placement where the situation is more likely to arise), make sure the agency worker is aware of it.”

Julian Cox, head of employment at City-based law firm iLaw, told Recruiter employers who do not wish to entertain the idea of workplace relationships or wish to monitor workplace relationships should include this in employee handbooks and employment contracts.

“These may stipulate that employees must inform management of relationships or if there is an appropriate reason to prevent a relationship between management and other workers, such as abuse of power. 
“Issues can become a lot more complex where an office relationship is either non-consensual or breaks down, and employers must be mindful of any allegations made of sexual harassment or discrimination and the potential disruptive effect on other employees and the business as a whole.

“However, it is worth considering that in the UK and Europe, in particular, staff members may be able to challenge policies that are too restrictive under the Human Rights Act, which protects the right to respect for family and private life (Article 8). In the case of Mr Easterbrook, this wouldn’t have come into play as no such provision exists in US law.

“Where an agency worker is seconded by an employer, the agency should ensure that they are clear about the rules of their employer and that they agree to them before commencing the work period. Companies may also request a specific agreement with agency staff if they have concerns, but this should be conducted during negotiations and tenders for new work.”

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