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Dismissal of the CEO at McDonalds, for a consensual relationship raised a few eyebrows – is romance at work really a fair reason for dismissal?

You should think twice about dismissing romance as a purely private matter but also think twice about not dismissing an employee, particularly a manager, for a romance.

Before dismissing it as an entirely private matter, consider the power dynamics in the situation:

  • A boss-subordinate relationship is different from outside relationships or even peer-peer relationships. Subordinates are at a power disadvantage. But, on the other hand, bosses have power that an astute subordinate might use.
  • We all feel we would have the moral courage to say “no” when appropriate. But would your employees run a personal errand for you, if you asked? Would they lie for you, if asked? What else would they do? How far would you have to go before they object?
  • Consider this: when subjected to harassment in an interview, one they believe to be genuine, research by psychologists Julie Woodzicka and Marianne LaFrance shows very few interviewees cry “foul”. This was even when previously the individuals had said that they would. You might exert more power over employees (or job interviewees) than you realise.
  • It is worth noting that schools ban teacher pupil relationships if the pupil is under 18. It is regarded as a “breach of trust” and it can lead to criminal proceedings.
  • Within the employment relationship, a boss could use a subordinate or a subordinate could use their boss. Both scenarios are possible; so it is not necessarily a private matter.

It would be worth considering appropriate policies, as McDonalds apparently did.

  • A relationship at work policy is not a magic bullet but, as a platform for any action, it is a good starting point. For example, at Facebook and Google, you can only ask a coworker out once, and if the person says no or gives you an ambiguous response (“Sorry, I’m busy”) you’re not allowed to ask again.
  • We looked at some of the pros and cons of policies in an earlier blog.
  • Typically, banks, such as Barclays who require all staff to report office romances, have specific policies.
  • A bullying and harassment policy can help give employees to have the confidence to complain before matters go too far.
  • A “whistle-blowing” policy might also be helpful in some circumstances too.
  • If you would like help with any such policies, please contact us.

What are your options?

  • Moving a manager (if it is an option) as has been done by the Church where abuse has been involved!
  • Dismissing one (generally the manager), the other (probably not since assessing power in the relationship would be impractical), or both parties (if your policy allows it). Dismissal could be hard to justify. It might be argued (if reasonably true on investigation) that a manager has abused her power and hence breached her contract with you. You may be able to argue reputational damage. It could be that a clear-cut policy on relationships at work has been breached – giving you a stronger platform. It may also be, of course, that no-one wants these matters aired in an open court.
  • Reaching a settlement agreement where the manager leaves the organisation.
  • Doing nothing and “letting the devil take the hindmost”.

You might note that I have not considered the “moral” stance. I suggest that this is not relevant to the employment situation.

What are your risks if you act?

  • Prejudicing a long-term loving relationship.
  • Claim(s) of constructive or unfair dismissal because of breaching trust and confidence or, potentially, privacy.
  • The risks are very much reduced if you are following a declared policy.

And if you don’t act?

  • Allegations of sexual harassment
  • Whistle-blowing to the press, in certain circumstance
  • Reputational damage
  • Claims under “duty of care” in the case of vulnerable people

McDonalds have raised the profile of office relationships. As employers we need to take note.

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice

Blogs are for general guidance and are not an authoritative statement of the law.