Recently, the case of a McDonald’s employee being fired hit the headlines after a workplace romance came to light. This wasn’t just any McDonald’s employee – it was the company’s European CEO, Steve Easterbrook, who was found to be having a relationship with a junior employee.
Mr Easterbrook, who was also president and member of the board at the global fast food giant, was voted out by the board of Directors after the company deemed he had “violated company policy” and shown “poor judgement”.
But what are the legalities regarding relationships in the workplace, and how should employers approach this sensitive topic?
Relationships at work are not uncommon occurrences. Yet when faced with a relationship between employees, business leaders are often unprepared and unsure what action – if any – they should take.
In the UK, the Human Rights Act 1998 gives employees a right to private life, and that includes personal and sexual relationships. As such, any disciplinary action or a dismissal taken against one or two of the parties on the basis of a consensual relationship alone would likely be unlawful.
Although the majority of workplace romances carry on without causing issue, it can sometimes happen that the relationship begins to affect performance. In such instances, it may be possible to follow poor performance procedures, which may include issuing warnings and putting an improvement plan in place.
Employer’s need to be mindful that for a dismissal to be fair, they would have to be able to prove that the employee had breached company policy, acted inappropriately or their actions otherwise amounted to misconduct. Outside of this, if the relationship amounted to a conflict of interest or was in some way prejudicial to the employer, there may be grounds for dismissal.
As in the McDonald’s case, issues can arise where a relationship is struck up between staff at differing managerial levels – for example a junior team member and their direct line manager. Favouritism, or perceived favouritism, may cause ructions between team members, and should the relationship end on bad terms, there is also the risk of a harassment claim being raised.
There can be a fine line between a consensual and an inappropriate relationship and in the light of Me Too and several scandals involving high profile executives, businesses are increasingly keen to have policies in place to protect staff members from unwanted sexual advances.
Some companies have a personal relationship policy in place that requires relationships between staff to be disclosed. This can be a sensible precaution for businesses to take and at least alerts business owners and HR teams of the relationship, allowing them to look out for potential issues arising.
At O’Donnell Solicitors our Employment Law team can advise employers on policies and procedures and act on behalf of both employers and employees in relation to all employment law matters. If you require advice, please contact James O’Donnell (email@example.com) or Suzzanne Gardener (firstname.lastname@example.org).