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18 Nov 2019

Employment

Workplace relationships, proceed with caution

Following on from the recent news of the McDonalds' CEO being sacked for participating in a relationship with an employee, Dan Wilde gives an insight into the legalities surrounding relationships at work.

Following on from the recent news of the McDonalds’ CEO being sacked for participating in a relationship with an employee, Dan Wilde gives an insight into the legalities surrounding relationships at work.

What actually occurred?

McDonald’s top boss Steve Easterbrook has been sacked after having a relationship with one of his employees.  The fast food giant’s boards determined the chief executive violated company policy, and claimed he had “demonstrated poor judgment”.

He also relinquished his seat on the company’s board as well.

“This was a mistake,” Easterbrook said of the relationship in an email to employees. “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.”

Relationships in the workplace

Dan Wilde, Partner and Head of Employment Law at Harding Evans Solicitor, has provided the following commentary on this particular situation:

Suprisingly, between 15 to 20% of people meet their spouse or partner at work. Not many people anticipate that they may be dismissed in consequence of forming a consensual relationship at work. You might therefore have been surprised to read of McDonald’s boss Steve EasterBrook having been dismissed after entering into a consensual relationship with a colleague.

Increasingly, concerns about favouritism, conflict of interests and/ or businesses being concerned as to potential claims of sexual harassment in the UK and US have led to an increasing number of employers introducing “Relationship at work” policies prohibiting relationships between colleagues regardless of seniority. The “Me to” movement has increased concerns about sexual harassment and exploitation of female employees leading to a rise in the number of employers introducing such policies. Initially these types of policy were more prevalent In US companies, but increasingly we are seeing UK employers introducing these types of policy.

Not all policies impose an absolute prohibition on relationships between colleagues. Some policies allows consensual relationship provided the relationship is declared, there is no conflict of interest, and no direct supervisory relationship.

It’s possible that individual employees adversely affected by the application of such a policy may argue that it is unfair to be penalised for entering into what might be a long-term relationship with a colleague and that has interfered with his/ her private life. Provided that the policy is clearly communicated to all employees and is fairly and consistently applied , a dismissal for breaching a Relationships at Work policy is likely to be held fair and there will be no entitlement to compensation, unlike in the case of Mr Easterbrooke reputed to be receiving a multi million termination package.

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