08 Nov 2019

McDonald’s case highlights workplace romance pitfalls for employers

McDonald’s case highlights workplace romance pitfalls for employers

The story of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook’s relationship with an employee, and specifically the company’s decision to dismiss him has attracted wide spread media headlines, with a range of views on whether this was an appropriate or proportionate response.

Whilst it was recognised by McDonald’s that the relationship was consensual, ultimately this breached their company policy and according to the fast-food chain it showed “poor judgment”. The policy in question was a business conduct standards policy which states: “In order to avoid situations in which workplace conduct could negatively impact the work environment, employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship.”

This of course is not the first time workplace relationships have caused difficulties at the top of an organisation. In 2018 Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, stepped down from his role in after an investigation found that he engaged in a consensual relationship with an Intel employee in breach of their company rules. Although both of these companies are based in the US, it may well have left employers across the UK questioning whether they should be implementing similar policies in the workplace. However, UK employers would be wise to proceed with caution.

As a starting point, there is the consideration of Article 8 of the European Commission of Human Rights which confers on individuals the right to respect for private and family life. Although this does not explicitly refer to relationships in the workplace, this does give individuals a general right to form and develop relationships with others. As these articles apply in the UK and not in the US, there are likely to be different considerations when drafting policies on workplace relationships.

Employee relationships at work are also likely to be unavoidable to some extent. Totaljobs conducted a survey and found that 22% of the people they asked met their partners at work. If people are prohibited from engaging in workplace relationships, this certainly leaves open the possibility that a practice of dishonesty could be encouraged, as well as leading to resentment amongst the workforce.

Some have made reference to the MeToo movement as a reason for imposing restrictions on workplace romances. However, workplace relationships policies are intended to govern consensual relationships and therefore are not designed to prevent sexual harassment. If this is a genuine concern for employers, they should instead be reviewing their existing policies and procedures surrounding equal opportunities and harassment at work.

Commenting on the case, Miranda Hughes, solicitor in Aberdein Considine’s Employment Law team said: “Given the obvious complexities and sensitivities around this subject, there is a question over whether such policies on relationships in the workplace are necessary at all.

If employers are particularly keen to implement a policy, the focus should be on providing guidelines to management to avoid unfair or discriminatory behaviour towards or by those in a relationship.

It can be a difficult area to navigate so it’s always best to seek professional advice, as ignorance of the law is not a strong defence, and can have serious consequences for an employer.”

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