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Romantic relationships between employees

How should you react when practice employees start a relationship? Solicitor Matthew Smith offers some advice

 

It has been brought to your attention that two staff members at your practice are involved in a romantic relationship outside work. What should you do? Should you have a practice policy that includes this scenario?

Some 25% of long-term relationships start at work, according to the Trades Union Congress, and relationships between colleagues may have a beneficial effect on the workplace.

The employees in question may be more motivated and there could be long-term benefits such as opening up lines of communication in the workplace.

However, there are many potential pitfalls. Problems with workplace relationships might include inappropriate behaviour in front of patients, conflicts of interest – for example, if a manager were to have a relationship with a subordinate – improper e-mail use, time wasting or the fall-out from a relationship breakdown.

Trying to stop the relationship straight away can be counterproductive. The employees will be demotivated and may even decide to leave.

In some circumstances, particularly where there is no immediate detriment to the employer, the employee may also have grounds to bring a claim for constructive dismissal. For public-sector employers, such an intervention would also arguably amount to breach of the right to respect for their private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Where the employees do not work directly together and are continuing to act professionally, then for the time being there is likely to be little that you can do. Where there appears to be a conflict of interest or the relationship is having an impact on work performance, then you would be justified in raising the issue with the employees informally to determine whether there is a problem.

Practice policy

A light touch will help foster an environment where employees are open about their workplace relationships rather than keeping them a secret for fear of disciplinary action.

If you decide to implement a practice policy, it therefore needs to be carefully worded with the aim of encouraging people to report relationships. Anything else is likely to be perceived as heavy handed, particularly in a small workplace.

Further, a strict policy which focuses on punishing employees who have relationships at work or who do not report them is likely to be unenforceable.

Most GPs would not want to put an end to a relationship before it begins, and it is only when there is a problem that they will want to do something.

In most cases, well-drafted disciplinary and performance-management policies, perhaps supplemented by a short policy on the reporting of relationships and what problems can arise if they are not reported, should allow you take appropriate action.

Matthew Smith is a solicitor in the employment team at national law firm Weightmans LLP

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