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Personal Relationships in the Work Place - 4 Key Policies That Every Employer Should Consider

View profile for Catherine Almeida
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The headlines involving Phillip Schofield's personal relationship with his colleague has probably got everyone in Employment and HR roles thinking about workplace relationships from an HR perspective.

It is common for personal relationships (both emotional and romantic) between colleagues to form. The majority of us will either know a couple who met at work or will fall into that category ourselves. How do employers balance the right of their staff to have a private life against the risks associated with colleagues being in a personal relationship?

The most obvious risks are the relationship having an impact on the wider workforce, on productivity, on confidential information (particularly when one has a more senior position than the other), potential conflicts of interest and potential problems if the relationship breaks down for example the risk of discrimination claims.

It also creates a potential issue in relation to bias, this could be actual bias or perceived, in relation to various work-related matters such as promotion/development, annual leave and existing discretionary policies which could have an adverse effect on morale.

1. Relationships at work policy

As with most, if not all, workplace issues employers should have a policy which deals with relationships in the workplace. Those with management responsibility for staff and HR managers should ensure they are aware of the risks so that they can be managed. It should be made clear that any members of staff who are in a personal relationship are expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner at work at all times in respect of the relationship, being considerate of the feelings of their other colleagues in their day-to-day work and being discreet in any discussions regarding their private life within the workplace. They should be reminded that displays of affection are not appropriate in the workplace.

Requiring disclosure of the relationship to HR/Management by both parties will allow the employer to decide on a plan to minimise the impact of the personal relationship on the business and the risks of a conflict of interest arising and to put in place appropriate safeguards to ensure fairness.

The risk of discrimination claims on the grounds of the protected characteristics of age, sex and sexual orientation are particularly relevant and any policy should remind those with management responsibility and HR managers that decisions around relationships at work need to be handled with care. For example, in situations where there is the potential for a conflict of interest which necessitates that the parties in a personal relationship cannot work on the same team or in the same department, the decision as to who should move a why should be thought through and documented. Having a policy or practice of moving the more junior employee in the personal relationship could amount to indirect sex discrimination if the majority of those in senior positions are of the same sex and therefore persons of the opposite sex are more adversely affected by the policy or practice.

2. Anti-harassment and bullying policy

An employer can be vicariously liable under the Equality Act 2010 for discrimination or harassment if they have not taken all reasonable steps to prevent this from occurring in the workplace. Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or conduct which violates someone's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them is unlawful harassment. It follows that if one party to the personal relationship is no longer interested in continuing but the other struggles to accept it and continues to contact the uninterested party, whether that contact is sexual or not, it becomes unwelcome and it has the potential to make the employer liable for a claim under the Equality Act 2010.

Employers should take any complaints of this nature very seriously and investigate them fully, taking action without delay, where necessary.

3. Use of mobile phone and other IT at work policy

A robust personal use of mobile phones and use of IT policy during work time may also assist employers to mitigate the risk of inappropriate and/or unwelcome communication during working hours.

4. Data protection policy

Employers should also be mindful of their data protection obligations. Information regarding personal relationships is confidential and likely to be protected under data protection laws. A robust data protection policy should help to ensure everyone is clear as to their data protection obligations to mitigate the risks of breaching data protection rights. 

To discuss this further, contact our Employment and HR Services team on 03333 208644 or email

Please note this article is not intended to be legal advice and is for information purposes only. You should seek advice from a solicitor before taking action.