How to have a relationship in the modern workplace
McDonald’s has fired its CEO over an office romance. Is a liaison at work now a no-no?
‘We can’t pretend work relationships don’t and won’t exist, but it’s important that the impact, should something go wrong, doesn’t impact the company or the individuals negatively.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Love hurts – especially when it leads to your dismissal as chief executive of one of the world’s biggest and most recognisable brands.
This week Steve Easterbrook had his contract terminated with fast-food giant McDonald’s, after it became known that he was in a consensual relationship with a fellow employee. Standing by its strict rules, McDonald’s decided the 52-year-old British-born chief executive had demonstrated poor judgment and breached company policy.
While many may deem the punishment somewhat super-sized, the reality is that large corporations on the far side of the Atlantic have, in recent years, been busy putting in place non-negotiable contractual clauses to prevent such romantic relationships from igniting in the first place.
And with many multi-national firms based in Ireland, such clauses are becoming more common here too – though indigenous companies are more reluctant to implement such draconian rules or policies on their staff.
“There needs to be a balance with this issue,” explains Caroline McEnery, managing director of Dublin-based human resources consultancy the HR Suite.
“We’re talking about someone in the most senior company position breaching a clear policy. But the approach to office romances needs to be appropriate and pragmatic. We can’t pretend work relationships don’t and won’t exist, but it’s important that the impact, should something go wrong, doesn’t impact the company or the individuals negatively.”
There have been cases where allegations of favouritism arise, on the basis of an employee’s relationship with a more senior member of staff. “Usually, though, these would be dealt with through an internal grievance procedure,” explains McEnery.
So how many of us have had workplace relationships or sought one at some stage in our working lives?
Surveys in the UK and US have found that around 22 per cent of employees say they met their partners through work. And two-thirds of the workforce said they had either dated a colleague or considered it.
When Jana Aleksic walked into the Massimo bar on William Street West in Galway in February 2016 to attend an unofficial work function, she had no idea she’d become one of that 22 per cent.
“Simon and I were both working on the same customer relations team at Shopify,” she tells me.
Simon Flaherty had joined the Canadian ecommerce company two weeks earlier.
“As the company focus is on working remotely, this was one of those occasions when employees just came together to get to know each other better – and we got to know each other much better,” she says.
Once it became clear that a relationship had begun, Aleksic checked that all was above board and that the budding romance didn’t contravene any company policy.
“I remember going through the employee manual to check if there was anything required of us to do, but there wasn’t,” she tells me.
As the couple have spent the vast majority of their time working for different departments within the company, Aleksic feels the fact they share the same employer has actually been beneficial to both of them.
Unwanted approaches, especially since the emergence of the #MeToo movement, are now taken very seriously by employers
“Inevitably you get a broader view of the operations of the company, and I think that’s been a very positive thing for us. It gives us a wider perspective.”
The company, she says, “is like a big family anyway and we’re by no means the only couple in the company, so it can and does work.”
In June, Aleksic and Flaherty were married at the groom’s grandparents’ farm near Tulla in Co Clare.
No legal obligation
Marc Fitzgibbon, senior partner at Lavelle Partners, who specialises in employment law, explains that there is no legal obligation to disclose a workplace relationship in Ireland.
He says: “Our constitution respects the right to one’s privacy so, legally speaking, it is not possible for an employer to dictate that employees must make a disclosure. Any such internal policy requiring this of staff would be highly questionable.”
But in cases where there could be a conflict of interest, he believes it would be “objectively better” if the employees in question made the relationship known to the HR department.
Fitzgibbon believes that in recent years Irish employers have become much more aware of the legal implications of unwanted romantic or sexual advances.
“Unwanted approaches, especially since the emergence of the #MeToo movement, are now taken very seriously by employers. Transgressions by senior male management, which would have been minimised in the past, are now not tolerated,” he says.
I believe the decision to fire him was completely correct. The company’s policy was crystal clear, and as a senior executive he knew exactly that this was a sackable offence
There is also a fear that rejecting an advance in the workplace can lead to awkwardness or worse.
Last year the Workplace Relations Commission ruled that a young woman who worked as a receptionist at a car parts company be compensated €46,000 (two years’ salary) when she was sacked soon after she turned down the sexual advances of her boss at a Christmas party at a hotel in Kilkenny.
For Stephanie Regan, a clinical psychotherapist, the need for parameters in terms of workplace relationships should be obvious.
“In terms of Steve Easterbrook, I believe the decision to fire him was completely correct. The company’s policy was crystal clear, and as a 52-year-old senior executive he knew exactly that this was a sackable offence. His decision to have a relationship with another employee would call into question his levels of responsibility and judgment, so the decision was the right one,” she says.
Regan believes the level of firefighting which must be carried out across Irish business due to office romances turning sour is under-reported.
“It’s a murky area unless there are very clear policies in place. Claims of favouritism and the impact on team dynamics can undermine a business in the long run, and I can understand why many companies, especially in the US, are putting protections in place,” she says.
Indeed, some technology firms have strict rules in relation to members of management dating employees. Many such companies implement a so-called “one and done” policy that prohibits employees from pursuing a romance beyond an initial rejection.
But while larger firms may devise personal relationships at work policies, such a formal and stringent approach is much harder for smaller companies to implement.
Keith Moran is managing director of SL Controls, a 90-strong industrial automation company based in Sligo, and says that to date the issue of workplace romances hasn’t caused any concern.
“[SL Controls] try to promote a culture of openness and camaraderie within the company, so if there is an issue, we’d feel confident employees could come and speak with us and know we’d treat their case sensitively. That said, we also respect our employees’ privacy. We can’t dictate that employees tell us that they’re in a relationship,” he says.
The impact of a bad break-up is felt by everyone and can even mean a valued member of staff feels they have to leave the company
However, he believes small and medium firms across Ireland are very aware of the potential pitfalls which might exist if a member of senior management were to enter into a relationship with an employee.
“We don’t have a clear plan written down, but if this happens we’d expect to be informed by the parties involved. There’s a practical impact there. Were a relationship to end badly, there’s a potential negative impact to the company internally and externally, and we’d need to protect everyone from that fallout,” says Moran.
Alan Hickey, associate director at employment law consultancy company Peninsula, believes the issue of confidentiality is also central to the concerns of companies should one of their senior managers start seeing another staff member.
“A senior manager will be privy to information which might be commercially sensitive and they’ll be aware of private issues relating to their employees. The risk that this information could be shared with a partner and then possibly passed on is clearly an issue.”
Hickey says the impact on smaller workplaces when a relationship ends badly can be particularly concerning.
“There’s nowhere to hide in a small department or on a small team. The impact of a bad break-up is felt by everyone and can even mean a valued member of staff feels they have to leave the company. There are ways to reduce the impact, such as installing new reporting lines, but where personnel numbers are low this may not even limit the fallout.”
And while there’s a belief that some workers would be very cautious of initiating a romantic advance because of the #MeToo movement, Hickey believes there may well be an increase in the number of workplace relationships in the years ahead.
“If you went back 20 or 30 years in Ireland you’d find male-dominated workplaces. Now, of course, there are so many more women in work so, generally speaking, there’s more gender diversity. Also, people are getting married and settling down at an older age, so you’ve a lot more single people in the workplace in their late 20s and 30s.
“Employees are spending more hours at work each week, on average, and so I think consensual office romances may actually rise, rather than fall.”