Employers may have to review how they manage personal relationships in the workplace following the dismissal of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook.
Easterbrook was dismissed after the board decided he had “demonstrated poor judgement involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee” and had violated company policy.
Although McDonald’s didn’t provide further information about who Easterbrook had formed a relationship with, his position as a CEO may have led to a conflict of interest.
Are workplace romances common?
Although this is a high profile case, many people meet their partners through work. Research from Totaljobs showed that out of 5,795 workers, more than one in five (22%) met their partner in the workplace.
This is more than through friends (18%), online dating (13%) or at bars or clubs (10%). The study also showed that people are generally accepting of workplace relationships, with 66% having either dated a colleague or considered it.
What should employers do?
With workplace relationships being relatively common, it can seem very harsh for employers to ban them outright. It can also be difficult to categorise what counts as a “relationship” and when it should be declared. There’s the possibility that a ban could simply be seen as a breach of people’s basic human rights.
If employers are to regulate relationships, it makes more sense to manage potential side effects rather than the relationship itself. For example, there could be nothing wrong with two colleagues dating. However, if that relationship causes distractions and interruptions when they’re at work, then that will be problematic.
Workplace relationship policies
The organisation could introduce a ‘personal relationships at work policy’. This could explain that employees are entitled to a private life, but also communicate the professional standards expected should they start a relationship with a colleague.
If a relationship between a senior manager and an employee reporting to them causes a conflict of interest, then the policy could require the relationship to be disclosed to HR. This is what Steve Easterbrook failed to do, costing him his job.
Policies should also be clear on bullying and sexual harassment. Relationships are mutual, but sometimes advances can be one-sided. It should be communicated to employees that any form of bullying and harassment will not be tolerated, making it clear that harassment is unlawful and will be treated as a disciplinary offence. This information should be included in the employee handbook.
In the era of #MeToo, employers should be wary of relationships that could be considered inappropriate. For example, if a senior manager was abusing their position by making unwanted advances towards a co-worker, it would be considered harassment. Such cases can be very harmful to individuals involved and the organisation’s reputation as a whole.
Employers should also avoid dismissing staff based on whether they’re in a relationship with a colleague. Doing so will be considered unfair and possibly discriminatory. For example, if a man and woman started a relationship and only one was dismissed because of it, then they could claim unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of sex.