What happens when the line between personal and private becomes blurred?
Erin McLafferty

Erin McLafferty

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 your 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 being in a relationship with a subordinate. This case is a stark reminder about the consequences that someone’s personal life can have for their career – and not just for politicians or those in the public eye. What was unusual in this case 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 unusual for employers who have to navigate around them on a regular basis.

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 and where conflicts of interest could arise. Complications can also occur if a relationship exists within a reporting line where allegations of bias may arise. In such cases, it may be possible to manage any issues by moving staff into different teams or by changing reporting lines. But for smaller businesses that may be more difficult.

Things can become most tricky where workplace relationships break down. In some cases the lines between someone’s private life and work life can become blurred. And the reality is that a relationship breakdown outside of work can have a real impact on a relationship at work. 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. That involves 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, it could certainly demonstrate to employees in a relationship that the employer does not wish to be caught in middle in the event of a break up.

In order to effectively manage these situations many employers will 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 such as was the case for McDonalds, it is not uncommon for UK employers to require such relationships to be disclosed. A relationship which could result in a conflict of interests 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 we have seen in the case of Mr Easterbrook.

While some employees may feel that their personal relationships are none of their employers business (and employers should be mindful of the privacy considerations) it is important for employers to be able to ensure that the interests of the business are not impacted adversely. Having a clear policy in place can bring things into the open and can help to strike the right balance. In the wake of #Metoo, employers would also be minded to ensure that such policies are taken seriously and consistently across all levels of the business, to ensure that the rules are followed from the bottom right to the very top.