Employers should be careful about disciplining staff over workplace relationships, say experts

McDonald’s fires CEO for violating policy – but rules may not be enforceable in more typical cases

Employers have been urged to think carefully about how they manage romantic relationships in the workplace, following the news that McDonald’s had fired its CEO for breaching its policies after undertaking a relationship with a colleague.

Experts said that, while workplace romances could cause problems for businesses, they should be viewed as a fact of working life and HR professionals dealing with the topic needed to balance employees’ rights to a private life with the broader interests of the business. 

They also suggested that in most cases that did not involve such an influential and high profile individual, it could be difficult to justify terminating employment for conducting a relationship with a colleague.

McDonald’s confirmed this morning that chief executive Steve Easterbrook (pictured) had been dismissed after its board decided he had violated company policy and “demonstrated poor judgement involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee”.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said workplace romances were a “fact of working life”, and employers needed to make clear the standards they expected from their staff.

“People spend a lot of time with their colleagues and it’s not surprising that sometimes work relationships turn into something more than that. The key is for employers to have clear standards of behaviour and clear policies and processes for tackling inappropriate behaviour,” said Willmott.

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“The top line is it’s about the behaviours organisations expect all their employees to demonstrate, and those should apply regardless of people’s relationships,” said Willmott, adding that standard policies on dignity and respect at work – setting out a zero tolerance approach to any form of sexual harassment or bullying – should be the priority.

Many organisations choose to go further by introducing specific policies that could, for example, require individuals to disclose relationships that create a conflict of interest – for example, a relationship between a manager and a direct report. Many US corporations explicitly ban workplace relationships and have in some cases attempted to introduce similar requirements in their British operations. 

But Willmott said any policy in this area would need to strike a balance between an employee’s right to a private life and an employer’s right to protect its business interest. “Under the Human Rights Act, employees have a right to a private and family life, and this includes their personal relationships. So any policy that had the effect of imposing on that right would be problematic,” he said.

McDonald’s has a “standards policy” which prohibits dating or sexual relationships between employees who have a “direct or indirect reporting relationship”. It advises any employee who might potentially violate the policy to speak to an HR representative or a director. 

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, said that attempting to ban workplace relationships would not only be difficult to enforce, but could in extreme circumstances be seen as a human rights infringement.

“If poorly managed, [workplace relationships] can lead to several productivity issues among staff and the potential for a conflict of interest, especially if one of the individuals in question does maintain a senior role,” said Palmer. 

“A more flexible way to deal with the issue could be the implementation of rules regarding disclosure of workplace relationships so that they can be managed appropriately. Employers can tell employees if they begin a workplace relationship they must tell senior management or the HR department. From here, steps can be taken to assess the situation.”

Questions were raised over whether it would be practical, in most cases, to terminate employment even for explicitly breaching a policy on workplace relationships. Experts suggested Easterbrook’s position as CEO was a key factor in his case which could justify his employer’s decision.

“Under English law, there is nothing inherently unlawful about a policy which prevents intra-colleague relationships or requires disclosure of them. However, enforcement is a different issue,” said James Froud, head of employment at McCarthy Denning. 

“It is difficult, for example, to see how an employer could fairly justify terminating employment for breach of such a policy. The issue is, and should be, one of whether the relationship creates a genuine conflict of interest and/or leads to conduct which is, in fact, prejudicial to the employer. In most cases, this will not be so.

“It should also be remembered that individuals have a right to privacy, as set out in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which employment tribunals will need to take into account when deciding on claims which arise from these issues.

“While the right is a qualified one, l do not think that a blanket policy which applies to any and all work relationships, irrespective of risk or outcome, will be justified to derogate from the right to privacy,” Froud said.