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When Love Breaks Down In The Workplace: A Guide for Irish Employers

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images-1Relationships – we all have them.  We all have familial relationships – and most of us also have romantic/sexual relationships.  And, for better or for worse, these relationships occur in the workplace.  It could be a small business run by a husband and wife team.  Or a business where offspring are employed by parents.  Or where romance blossoms between 2 colleagues.  Or a relationship develops between a subordinate and a superior – whether that superior is married or not.  The possibilities are endless – just like in life outside the workplace.

And those endless possibilities bring with them endless potential sources of conflict and disruption.  Familial relationships can be or turn negative and that deterioration can be brought into the workplace.  Or issues in the workplace can impact on a familial relationship that was otherwise fine.

For example, imagine the husband and wife team where one of them is the boss at work.  Being a boss, no matter how consensual and collaborative the culture, brings with it the need (rare or frequent) to be dictatorial in decision-making.

Or imagine that a father and son work together – and a shift of authority happens over time  whereby the son becomes the boss as the father begins a transition towards a final exit.  The authority in their workplace relationship may become stressfully different to their personal relationship.

The Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) ruled recently on a case (UD970/2013) where workplace conflict between a father (the owner) and daughter (employee) caused severe stress to another employee whose desk was between those of the owner and his daughter.  This other employee witnessed habitual arguments between father and daughter.  The “constant arguments made the claimant very uncomfortable” – and “started to affect her ability to do her job and her well being”.

It is not known whether the father and daughter’s communications with each other in the workplace was typical of how they communicated elsewhere.  But what is abundantly clear is that how they communicated in the workplace was wholly unprofessional – and that it had a severe impact on the claimant in the case.

In response to the claimant telling the owner on numerous occasions about “the impact it was having on her and her ability to do her job”, she was instructed to “get a headset for calls so she could block out the sounds around her”.

The owner accepted that “there was no grievance or disciplinary procedure in place and no record of any of the meetings held”.  Further, he accepted that “he told the claimant that there was a customer who refused to deal with her in direct retaliation for the claimant’s complaint against his daughter”.

The claimant eventually went on sick leave after a particular incident in a conference room when the owner, by his own admission, “shouted at the claimant, held the door of the conference room closed and blocked it preventing her from leaving the room”.  Ultimately the claimant resigned and thereafter won a constructive dismissal case because of this incident.  The EAT’s ruling stated clearly “that violence in the workplace is unacceptable.”  Shouting too is wholly unacceptable – except as a precautionary measure to draw someone’s attention to a physically dangerous situation.

That employer had no grievance or disciplinary policy in place.  They seemingly made no effort to resolve the toxic situation – nor to manage its effect on other employees.  Communications between the owner and at least two employees – his daughter and the claimant – were destructive.  Resolution of the situation would have been helped by a facilitated meeting between the parties.  But the owner seemingly made no effort to engage an external dispute resolution or conflict management expert – nor indeed did he engage a mediator which can be helpful in such cases.

Romantic relationships can also begin in or be brought into the workplace.  The disadvantages may be obvious.  Managers may look on people who engage in such relationships to be less worthy of promotion because of their “judgement”.  Managers might also judge someone by who their partner is – and that could be a limiting factor for an employee if their partner is perceived in a less positive light.  But such relationships do still happen – even if they’re ill-advised.  And they may be happening more often now because of the changing work environment – longer hours, mixing of sexes, inclusive and consensual communications.

Many people are well able to keep their personal and private lives separate.  But not all.  And that can lead to conflict with other work colleagues.  For example, colleagues may believe that a colleague in a relationship with a superior is receiving preferential treatment.  Or managers may feel uneasy over another manager managing a team of people that includes a person they are romantically involved in.  Or colleagues that are aware of an affair may feel awkward and compromised – ethically and/or if they happen to know the partner of one of the people involved.

Problems may also arise when the relationship is under strain or ends. It can be difficult to maintain productivity.  If the people are in the same department or in close proximity to each other then they may in theory have to work together but in practice be unable to do so.  If they are in different departments there may be less contact between the two departments and that can directly damage productivity.  If either of them is resentful towards the other then there is even greater potential for damage.

In another EAT ruling (UD1425/2012, MN821/2012) a chef in a nursing home was dismissed following allegations made against him.  There were 4 allegations.  However, 3 of the 4 allegations had to do with the serving of food inappropriately – a responsibility that the chef did not even hold.  The other allegation was made by the chef’s ex-girlfriend.   Tellingly, of the three other people whose statements “corroborated the allegation, only one was actually present on the premises on that day and the one that was present was a good friend of the claimant’s ex-girlfriend”.  (The EAT’s ruling shows other serious errors too.  Statements made by people who saw nothing untoward, as well as CCTV evidence that too showed nothing, were not given the attention and weight that they warranted.)  So, at the very least, you have a seriously flawed investigation showing the need for expert investigators.  But you also have a situation that appears to have been exacerbated, and arguably caused, by a workplace relationship breaking down.

Where hierarchy is involved in the relationship there is another dimension to the potential fallout.  If the subordinate ends the relationship there could be problems if the superior thereafter uses their position to provide poor performance reviews.  If the superior ends the relationship then the subordinate may feel that their own position is untenable.

So – what’s an employer to do?  Or not do?  And what powers do an employer have?  Can we learn anything from our neighbours?  In America organisations adopt one of the following four approaches:

  • Do nothing
  • No ban on such relationships but disclosure of them is required
  • Partial ban on relationships, for example, between supervisors and subordinates
  • Outright ban

Obviously there are enforcement challenges with all but the first – as many couples will decode to keep their relationship secret – and will be well able to.

In the UK blanket bans are also considered unenforceable – but for a different reason.  There is the 1998 Human Rights Act – in particular Article 8 which states that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”  Similarly, a blanket requirement for disclosure is problematic for the same reason.  However, a partial ban is arguably defensible in the UK.  Whether or not having such a policy is advisable though is a different issue!

In Ireland romantic workplace relationships are not prohibited so employers typically do not have a policy banning them.   Also, in the Irish culture, such policies may well be viewed as invasive and impinging on people’s privacy.  Neither is it advisable to foster an atmosphere of fear – fear hinders productivity and may increase staff turnover.  So in Ireland the approach is typically to have no policy banning relationships or requiring their disclosure.  Employers should though have a dignity at work policy that prohibits bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.  (This previous article on the need for bullying complaints to be taken seriously may be of interest.)  Employers should also be mindful of employment law that precludes discrimination.

In summary, If you, as is the convention in Ireland, do not have a policy on relationships, it is critical for you to be well versed in employment law but also to have a robust dignity at work policy that has been disseminated to all your employees and which is actually used whenever appropriate.  Relationships in the workplace – be they family or romantic – have the potential to cause conflict.  If such conflict occurs, it requires management by specialists who are expert at mediation and dispute resolution and who have the expertise and training to, if required, carry out robust investigations.   

To get expert and professional guidance call Mary Cullen, Patrick Foley or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email mcullen@insighthr.ie.

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