ITV says that workplace relationships and friendships must be declared – should other businesses follow suit?

As the broadcaster’s staff risk being fired if they fail to adhere to the rules, HR experts give their thoughts

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ITV has issued new relationship guidelines to its staff in the wake of Phillip Schofield’s decision to step down after having a relationship with a younger colleague. 

The new rules, according to the Sunday Times, state: “If a personal relationship exists between you and another colleague (whether it started prior to or during the course of your employment or engagement with ITV), both parties must disclose this to the company at the earliest opportunity.”

But the rules go beyond just romantic relationships, requiring workers to declare “sexual, romantic or close relationship or friendship (whether short or longer term)” with their workers. 

Employees who fail to do so could risk facing disciplinary action or even lose their job. The rules apply to anyone involved with the organisation, including freelancers, contractors, consultants, agency staff, volunteers, apprentices and those on work experience. 

However, HR experts fear that the policy has gone too far and say there are different approaches workplaces can take which can be more effective in handling workplace relationships, without ruining trust between workers and their employers.

Limits to information levels 

Natasha Kearslake, director of HR consultancy Organic P&O Solutions, told People Management: “The new workplace relationship policy has brought accusations that bosses are being over zealous.”

She said that, while It is sensible for organisations to have a code of conduct on workplace relationships and to encourage employees to disclose romantic relationships, “there are limits to how much information should be required”.

Instead, workplace relationship policies “should treat all employees fairly, equally and not be overly prescriptive”, she said, adding: “HR and bosses need to ensure that enforcement is consistent and fair, but decisions also need to be weighed up with a clear understanding about context. 

“Transgressions of the policy should always be acted upon with discretion and a healthy dose of compassion for the people involved and those it may affect,” she said. “So communication with the relevant parties should be considered for each case on its merits and handled with sensitivity.

“Any policy needs to be communicated to employees and they should acknowledge their understanding of the policy by signing a document, which can be kept in their personnel file.”

Legal considerations

Martin Williams, head of employment and partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, suggested that ITV’s policy may be focussing on the wrong areas in the wake of the Schofield affair and said the firm may be “overcompensating”.

And besides, having a central log of relationships “creates a data protection nightmare of epic proportions”, he added, so a more informal approach might be more appropriate.

“By all means have a provision in policies that asks staff to report instances where there may be conflicts of interest arising, but let that be an open process.

“If those who have done something wrong are not going to self-report, and most likely they will not, then it must be easier for those who are free from wrongdoing, whether victims or not, to be able to report. And they need to know they will be listened to.”

Nicola Orr, head of employment at law firm DavidsonMorris, told People Management that HR teams are more likely to be worried about the impact of workplace relationships “if something goes wrong” and should be transparent in their handling of such situations to ensure that no one feels discriminated against.

“Ideally HR likes to have a clear framework and a transparent process so everyone can see how certain situations will be treated. The reality is that you can't always have a policy that covers everything.

“In the end, the best policies are those written for that specific organisation (aware of possible risks, taking account of company size and culture) and outlining when the employer will intervene and the steps it will take to try and resolve any differences,” she said.

But she added it is important to remember that “how well connected people feel to colleagues is a good predictor of high performance”.

“We spend a lot of time at work so it does help if we enjoy it, and social connections are important. Friendship also builds trust, another important predictor of performance,” she said.

“HR policies can be tricky to get right – it's all about finding a balance. Friendships are fine if everyone's getting along and there isn't a conflict of interest.”