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Is it lawful for employers to have a relationships at work policy?

You may have heard or read about Steve Easterbrook, the chief executive of McDonald’s food chain, who has recently been dismissed for appearing to fall foul of the company’s policy on workplace relationships. Mr Easterbrook is reported to have been involved in a consensual relationship with a colleague which, ultimately, has cost him a job that reportedly paid him over £12 million in 2018.

Whilst the Employment Tribunal is unlikely to be troubled with this case, as Mr Easterbrook will receive a severance package, UK employers may be left wondering whether a ‘relationships at work policy’ is actually lawful. Here are some issues that you may want to consider.

  • It is perfectly possible for employers to implement such a policy. We spend a significant amount of time at work and so it is not unusual for colleagues to be more than simply just work colleagues.
  • Employers should consider why they would want a relationships at work policy in place and what types of behaviour are expected of employees.
  • Consider carefully the business need for the policy and where possible conflicts of interest could arise. Potential problem scenarios could involve a senior employee who line manages a colleague with whom they are in a relationship, and that manager is perceived by team members to be favouring their partner. At very senior levels, there may be concerns as to the security of sensitive or confidential information being divulged to partners. Or, perhaps more commonly, the employer is simply concerned as to what happens if the relationship turns sour.


Any employer looking to implement such a policy will also need to have regard to striking the fine balance between managing its workforce and the employee’s human right to privacy. Even then, in the event of an employee falling foul of the relationship policy and formal action being taken, employers still run the risk of Employment Tribunal claims arising out of any dismissal or unlawful sex discrimination. Simply having a policy in place is no guarantee of a lawful conclusion to matters. 

For legal help and guidance in relation to relationships at work policies, please contact our employment team on 01482 325242 or email

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