Business Irish

Thursday 14 November 2019

On the thorny issue of office romance, what must Irish employers know?

McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook recently left the firm after having a romantic relationship with a colleague. Photo: Joshua Lott
McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook recently left the firm after having a romantic relationship with a colleague. Photo: Joshua Lott

Maeve Griffin

Fast food giant McDonald's announced on Sunday that it had "separated" from CEO Steve Easterbrook, credited by many with reinvigorating the chain since his appointment in 2015, as a result of him having a "consensual relationship with an employee".

Far from being a one-off, Easterbrook is the fifth US CEO to step down in similar circumstances, following a consensual relationship with a co-worker or subordinate, in less than two years.

In a press release announcing the news, McDonald's stated that Easterbrook had "violated company policy" and "demonstrated poor judgement".

Last week, the United States congresswoman Katie Hill also announced her resignation from office, amid allegations she had a sexual relationship with a member of her staff.

The claims surfaced when nude pictures of her and one of her team members were leaked to the media and shared online.

While admitting that she had made "mistakes" in the past, Hill said that there had also been an invasion of her privacy.

Romantic relationships between co-workers can be a tricky issue for employers, with a need to balance an employee's right to privacy on the one hand against a need for robust anti-sexual harassment policies.

There is no law against an office romance, and it is ultimately a question of company policy.

Prohibiting romantic relationships between co-workers may be neither practical nor wise.

Employees have a right to privacy and any attempt to ban romantic relationships could be considered invasive and overbearing.

It might also result in the loss of talented workers, where employees are dismissed for engaging in consensual sexual relationships.

Some companies, like McDonald's, have an outright ban on dating or having sexual relationships with employees in a direct or indirect line of management.

Other companies, such as Facebook, allow staff to ask each other out, but have a 'once-only' request policy.

Most Irish companies do not have an explicit rule banning office romances. A prudent employer will have a robust policy dealing with the issue.

It is best practice to require disclosure of relationships where there is a perceived conflict of interest.

This will undoubtedly arise where there is an imbalance of power, perceived favouritism, or where one has influence over the other's promotional opportunities, salary increases, etc.

A sensible company policy may also dictate that if employees date within their reporting line, one of them may be moved to an alternative position to remove any perceived conflict of interest. In the United States, it has been reported that employees are being asked to sign a 'love contract' if they choose to date a colleague.

This type of contract is a document setting out how they will behave at work, declaring that they have consented to the relationship and that they understand the company's sexual harassment policy.

The idea is that the company is no longer liable for a claim of sexual harassment because the employees have acknowledged that the relationship is consensual.

However, love contracts may not be appropriate where one party later alleges that they were pressurised into signing the document in the first place - or where a consensual relationship later becomes non-consensual.

It is unlikely that love contracts would have any weight in Ireland.

Problems can arise where sexual conduct creates an unpleasant workplace environment for others, or where there is tension in the workplace following the breakdown of a consensual relationship.

Facebook's policy states that employees must continue to act professionally after a break-up.

Employers will normally trust their grievance, bullying and harassment policies to deal with such conflicts in the workplace, and it is advisable to review these policies to ensure that they are indeed adequate to deal with these types of scenarios.

Employers are certainly tasked with a delicate balancing act.

The priority should always be to provide a safe place to work.

However, in respect of consensual relationships, when does employer oversight become too intrusive?

The latest high-profile cases in the United States have brought the issue into focus.

And with the annual Christmas party season looming, employers should take this opportunity to set appropriate boundaries, through clear policies that are regularly and effectively communicated to their employees.

Maeve Griffin is an associate in William Fry's employment and benefits practice

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