With the news a few months ago that the head of McDonalds has been sacked for having a relationship with an employee, I thought it would be a good time to re-release this article!!

There was an interesting edition of The Bottom Line on Radio 4 recently on ‘Managing Workplace Relationships’. It discussed the complexities of handling romance and dealing with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace which can cause a real headache for both HR and the business.  I have come across numerous candidates who met at work so minimising any potential issues from these budding romances is vital.

Here’s a summary of the key points.

Times have changed and relationships in the workplace have become more acceptable – we are all encouraged to be more human at work. Relationships do happen, but there is still a tendency to keep them secret. Is this a problem?

To an extent, it does depend on the industry. For example, publishing is a relatively small industry, and people tend to work with each other over a period of time which brings its own dynamic. It can be very different in large companies especially if promotion or financial gain is a possibility, such as in the financial sector.  In some cases legal issues can arise.

Getting together

In general, when two relatively young people, meet at work and start a relationship that shouldn’t be a problem. Dependingon the culture in the organisation, these uncomplicated relationships can almost be encouraged, the parties congratulated.

Even so, the HR message should be: ‘Tell Us Early’. That way problems down the line can be avoided. The existence of the relationship doesn’t have to be broadcast, just mentioning it to their boss is OK and will be respected.

Attraction between two people also raises social norms about keeping a sensible distance from people and not invading their body space.  It’s important to create a culture in which proper behaviour during office hours is maintained. People should be reminded that if their approach to someone is turned down, they are still going to have to work with them day after day and they need to be prepared for the potential consequences.

Complicated Relationships

It’s more complicated when relationships occur between a senior and junior employee. Historically, it tended to be the senior male and junior female, but of course it can be the other way round.

There have been legal cases where a more senior manager is flattered by an attentive, attractive junior and misreads the signals. But if an employee suffers from inappropriate comments or sexual harassment in the work place the company can be liable.  

Again, disclosure is important. There can be a conflict of interestif a boss can influence pay or promotions so HR needs to know what’s going on to ensure the senior party is making decisions for the right reasons. A clear solution is toput in place a different reporting line or find other ways to remove likely conflicts. But bear in mind that if it’s always the junior/female who is moved, that could amount to discrimination.

Relationship Breakdowns

Problems can occur when a relationship breaks down. The common approach is to say ‘Sort it out between yourselves, you’re consenting adults’, but if things escalate, HR might need to step in. If HR knew of the relationship early on, and put in place different reporting lines, that will now pay off. But if the parties kept the relationship secret, it can turn into a toxic environment which can lead to bullying or even people getting fired. Here the employer must act and be aware of any potential liability for unfair dismissal.

Even in cases where breakdowns go smoothly, employers need to think about any impact on the rest of the team – they must be seen to be acting fairly.

Inappropriate behaviour

A related issue is banter, flirting and other inappropriate behaviours in the workplace, all further complicated these days by social media. Common HR practice is to say: ‘If you don’t want your boss, colleagues or your mum to see it, don’t post it.’  We all hear about ‘being ourselves’ at work, but this has to be our best self.

The odd inappropriate comment might be OK, but it’s a problem if it becomes systemic. Saying something out of turn is only human and it does happen, but by reflecting and then apologising the issue can go away.

Should companies have a policy?

It makes sense to have a policy covering relationships at work. Many companies do, especially larger ones and those industries (eg the financial sector) where conflicts can arise. In the absence of a specific policy, these issues are usually covered by more general policies on anti-bullying, anti-harassment and dignity at work. 

But, as we have seen – an organisation’s culture is critical: it’s vital to create an environment of inclusion and real dignity at work, because realistically, no policy can stop people falling in love!


This edition of The Bottom Line was aired in 2017 and hosted by Evan Davis. The guests were Neil Morrison (Director of Culture, Strategy and Innovation, at Penguin Random House), Helen Farr (Partner in Employment Law at Fox Williams), and Danielle Harmer (Chief People Officer at Metro Bank).