Barack and Michelle Obama met while she was his supervisor as he interned over summer at a law firm. Jay Z and Beyoncé met during the collaboration of ‘Crazy in Love’ and Angelina and Brad spent years together after their on-screen marriage in Mr and Mrs Smith.
An online study in 2017 found that 15 per cent of people meet their significant other at work. Yet, the McDonald’s chief executive, Steve Easterbrook, has allegedly been fired for having a consensual relationship with a fellow employee. McDonald’s view is the relationship, although consensual, demonstrated poor judgement from the CEO and was not in accordance with the company’s workplace policies.
With the position of McDonald’s in mind, as well as the increased scrutiny to which employers and their employees are being subjected in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is unsurprising that many employers now choose to implement a policy specifically addressing relationships at work.
The policies often allow relationships with the proviso that there is no negative impact on the conduct of either employee in the workplace. These policies often permit the employer to redeploy or restructure the management of any employee who may be subject to a conflict of interest as a result.
From an employment law perspective, there are five potentially fair reasons for dismissal under the Employment Rights Act 1996: conduct, capability, redundancy, statutory ban or some other substantial reason (SOSR). However, employers would need to carefully consider if having a workplace relationship could fall within the scope of one of the five based on the merits of the case, the most obvious being conduct or SOSR.
Despite the breach of company policy, there does not seem to be any allegation of untoward behaviour or poor conduct on work premises as a result of Mr Easterbrook’s relationship. However, the absence of an equal balance of power between Mr Easterbrook and his partner within McDonald’s adds another dimension. As CEO, his decision making would affect her working day, therefore creating a higher risk of personal life bias and undue influence at work. This, in conjunction with the other relevant factors, would have to be weighed up in order to determine if there were sufficient grounds to dismiss fairly for SOSR.
Ultimately stopping relationships is not likely to be practical for employers and arguably being too restrictive could impact the employee’s ability to exercise their right to a private life. That is not to say that steps to minimise any fallout from the relationship should not be considered. This could take the form of equality and diversity training, an employee code of conduct and workplace policies. To safeguard welfare and reputation, employers may introduce a requirement to declare workplace relationships and reporting lines should be reviewed to minimise the potential for conflicts of interest.