How to manage workplace affairs: the Northern Ireland legal perspective

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Gateley Legal NI

Since many people spend as much time with work colleagues as they do with family and friends, it isn’t surprising that romantic relationships in the workplace are common. We consider how employers in Northern Ireland can manage any fallout from workplace relationships, whether they are out in the open or kept under wraps.

Has there been an abuse of position?

Abuse of workplace authority to encourage or coerce more junior employees into engaging in affairs is unfortunately all too common.

Ultimately, relationships at work in the UK are not unlawful. Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 gives employees the right to a private life and, as such, an employee can have a consensual relationship with another colleague, subject to any workplace policy which prohibits such relationships. A total ban on relationships at work is likely to contravene Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. However, some employers implement a ‘relationship at work’ policy requiring employees to disclose to their employer if they are engaging in a relationship with a colleague. 

Any workplace romance, relationship or affair between a senior and a more junior employee has the potential to cause issues; the risk of the more junior person alleging an abuse of position is high. Favouritism, conflicts of interest, sexual harassment allegations and the creation of a toxic working environment, also become big risks. If the relationship ends badly and working relationships become strained, it can become very difficult for an employer to manage. 

Deliberately misleading an investigation

It is common for an internal investigation to take place in order to ascertain as much detail as possible about a workplace relationship, especially if there have been allegations of an abuse of power.

Where one or both of the parties involved in the affair already have a partner, employees may try to cover up details during an investigation in order to protect a relationship at home. Lying to an employer about any matter is clearly a potential gross misconduct offence, especially when it involves deliberately misleading a formal investigation. It is common for an employer to include deception or lying as a gross misconduct offence within its disciplinary policy and it is certainly a good idea to do so. 

Bringing the business into disrepute

Employers are entitled to consider disciplinary action, including dismissal, where an employee does something to bring its business into disrepute. This is usually a gross misconduct or misconduct offence within most employers’ disciplinary policies to protect an organisation’s reputation in the marketplace, particularly in Northern Ireland, where communities are often tight knit. 

Some other substantial reason – is their position untenable?

If the fallout from a workplace affair means that either or both of the employees’ positions become untenable, employers can look to dismiss an employee for what is known as ‘SOSR’ – meaning ‘some other substantial reason’. This can be a “fair” reason to dismiss an employee where something has happened to make their position untenable (as well as bringing the employer into disrepute). 

Top tips for employers when dealing with workplace relationships

  1. Consider implementing a fair and reasonable ‘relationships at work’ policy, which includes a management right to ban any inappropriate behaviour during working hours as well as the right to move an employee to a different role or team if a conflict of interest arises.
  2. If the relationship is between a manager and a more junior employee, in order to avoid any sexual harassment claims or allegations of discrimination on the grounds of age and/ or sex, ensure that the junior is not treated less favourably because of the relationship.
  3. Ensure there is no preferential treatment in how, for example, holiday requests are dealt with and how shift patterns are operated, if a manager is in a relationship with a more junior employee within his or her team. 
  4. Ensure your disciplinary policy includes bringing the business into disrepute as well as lying as potential gross misconduct/ misconduct offences. 
  5. Make sure that if you become aware of an office relationship, that you address any issues relating to distraction from performance or time-wasting if the situation is negatively affecting the rest of the team.

This article has been reworked from that initially published by Legal Island.

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