What to do about a personal relationship at the workplace

What to do about a personal relationship at the workplace

It is common for personal relationships to develop at work. Without care being taken, this situation can cause a number of problems for an organisation.  This blog will explain what to do about a personal relationship at the workplace. It will outline what a personal relationship at the workplace is, what problems can arise and how those problems could potentially be avoided.

What is a personal relationship at the workplace?

It is easy to assume that a personal relationship refers solely to something that is romantic or intimate in nature, but it actually includes a wider group than that, such as family members. The central concern is whether the nature of the relationship causes judgement to become clouded.

The potential problems with a personal relationship at the workplace

1. A distorted view of the person’s abilities or potential


An obvious example would be where a person applies for a job and the individual responsible for reviewing the applications, and undertaking the interviews, happens to be a relative. In such a situation, could the interviewer provide an objective view on what that particular applicant could offer? Similarly, if an employee and their line manager are in a romantic relationship is the person going to get a fair performance review or is it going to be flawless? In such a situation the decision maker may well think that the relationship did not affect the choices that were made, but that confidence does not mean that decisions were objective.


2. A conflict of interest


There are potentially a substantial number of situations whereby the decision maker may put the interests of that particular individual before that of the employer. A basic example may be authorising financial transactions such as expense claims. This may mean approving claims without reviewing them properly, permitting that person not to follow the usual process, such as not providing receipts or, as an extreme example, there may be collusion in order to benefit from false claims or transactions.

Aside from the financial dimension, which has been referred to above, there are numerous situations which relate to compliance. In many roles it is necessary to undertake tasks in a particular way and to record what was done. For example, when providing care to patients it is likely to be necessary to log the care that they receive when and from whom.

Similarly, there is typically a need to log what medication has been taken when. If an error arises, there is the possibility those in a personal relationship could take steps to conceal wrongdoing. Some industries require employees to wear particular clothing for health and safety purposes. Perhaps, the person undertaking the inspection or spot check turned a blind eye because of their closeness to the person concerned, in order to avoid the employer becoming aware of what happened.

 Health and safety equipment and medication are two extreme examples of mistakes which could cause lives to be put in danger. In either case, it is clear that the right thing to do would have been to come clean about it from the outset so that errors are identified, and steps taken to improve things in future, but sometimes things are not that simple when the situation relates to people that we are particularly close to.

Other examples of actions which are not in the interests of the organisation may be authorising leave, when it would not have been authorised for other colleagues, or expecting a particular person to do less work than others.


3. What happens if the relationship goes sour?


Sadly, it is common for relationships to deteriorate and break down. Perhaps it was a disagreement that escalated into a family feud, or a romantic relationship that has simply run its course. Either way the situation is likely to be distressing for some (if not all) of the people involved, but the situation becomes even more complex if those people still need to work together. Will there be an atmosphere at the workplace, allegations of being treated unfairly due to the change in circumstances, a drop in productivity or increased levels of absence? What could be done to prevent this unfortunate situation?


A personal relationship in the workplace – actions to take as an employer

1. Have policies and procedures in place


It is important to set out in writing what should happen regarding a personal relationship  at the workplace, so that everyone knows what they should do, what will happen and why those measures are in place. Such an approach increases consistency and fairness as the action to be taken is set by the policy and is not therefore determined by the discretion of particular managers.


2. Ensure those procedures are followed in practice


It is common for policies and procedures to be in place but for them not to be adopted in practice. This may be because of a view that the organisation should not intervene in personal matters, an assumption that the potential problems will never happen, or a concern that such an approach would dampen the spirit of the workplace. In fact, having a robust policy in place strengthens the workplace rather than undermines it.

3. Ensure checks and balances are in place


The problems that can arise as a result of personal relationships highlight the need for care to be taken to remove potential conflicts of interest. In order for policies and procedures to be effective they should be embraced throughout the organisation rather than only being directed at a particular department or team.


4. Do not make assumptions


There may be speculation in the workplace about romantic relationships. However, it would be unhelpful to make decisions based on gossip. Instead, efforts should be taken to ensure that procedures are followed and the appropriate action taken.

Can an employee be sacked for having a personal relationship at the workplace?

It would be unwise for an employer to take such extreme action simply because of the relationship. As referred to above, personal relationships have the potential to cause all sorts of problems if the situation is not managed correctly. However, the problem is not caused by the personal relationship itself, but by a failure to have the right safeguards in place, and the behaviour of the employee concerned. If disciplinary action is being considered, it would be wise to take advice first to ensure any action is appropriate.

Plotkin & Chandler works exclusively in the areas of HR and employment law. We have expertise in drafting an extensive range of HR documentation, such as policies and procedures relating to handling a personal relationship at work, which are tailored to the needs of clients. We offer HR consultancy whereby we undertake tasks on behalf of clients. We also provide HR training on a range of topics including such as what to do about a personal relationship at the workplace. For a free consultation, to discuss your needs and the ways in which we can help, call us on 020 3923 8616 or email us at info@plotkinandchandler.com












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