Are relationships between senior executives and employees allowed in the workplace, or is it frowned upon?
Generally, in Ireland, relationships between colleagues and consensual romantic or sexual relationships between work colleagues is an area that is not covered by employment legislation and an area that is not widely dealt with by many employers or their workplace policies.
However, in recent times, more high-profile organisations globally have had trouble in this area and there is nothing stopping any organisation from implementing their own tailored company policies that deal with protocol for when there would be relationships between work colleagues. This approach in particular can be a worthwhile or safe method of protecting against the abuse of power in scenarios where a superior may be become romantically involved with a subordinate.
Some organisations may also decide to have a “declare policy” or a “love contract” as it is dubbed in the U.S, whereby if two colleagues were to become involved in a relationship, it would be declared by both parties so as to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest. In such a scenario, some of the remedies to this can be the inclusion of inter-departmental transfers for example in order to protect against possible conflicts of interest.
However, it could also be argued that any such policy like this could impact upon recruitment and retention and be viewed as overly stringent, impacting on a worker’s entitlement to a private life.
In the main, relationships are not particularly frowned upon in the Irish workplace but this could be something that more and more workplaces look into now, given several high-profile scandals with big name organisations in the UK and U.S in particular.
Are there issues around workplace relationships that arise in smaller businesses?
It is actually quite common for relationships between co-workers in a small business to cause problems, it isn’t just large organisations who have to worry about this.
Take the example of a small workplace with 20 or so employees, maybe a cafe, restaurant, bar or retail outlet – If a manager/supervisor becomes romantically involved with one of his/her team, this can lead to accusations of favouritism. Examples of that can include accusations or grievances that the person involved in the relationship with their direct report gets favourable treatment with regards to workload, shift scheduling, rostering, designation of work duties, favourable annual leave days or is never going to be pulled up on under performance.
Such a consequence can actually cause a small business several issues and hugely impact on team dynamics and their retention of talent. This can have more impact in a small business than it can in a large organisation. However, a small business has less flexibility to deal such a scenario as a conflict of interest cannot be remedied by a department transfer like it would in a larger organisation.
Again, most workplaces would not dream of tackling such an issue as it would be seen as being invasive upon one’s private life. However, relationships between co-workers can cause problems in a workplace and especially where there may be conflicts of interest so this may be an area that workplaces need to consider more carefully, even the smaller workplaces.
The least that any workplace should have in place to deal with this issue is a dignity & respect in the workplace policy that deals with bullying, harassment & sexual harassment to protect all employees and ensuring a safe place of work. With regard to consensual relationships though, it is a tricky business that most small employers have not tackled as of yet. Perhaps given the many high-profile cases of recent times, many small employers may be wise to have a more robust policy in place.
Damien McCarthy Assoc. CIPD
HR Consultancy & HR Talent Recruitment