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Relationships At Work: Have They Met Their Match?

In her latest blog, employment lawyer Laura Robinson looks at relationships at work following the recent senior exit from McDonald’s.

Earlier this month Steve Easterbrook, the chief executive of McDonald’s was fired for having a relationship with a McDonald’s employee in breach of company policies. It’s believed that he left under a severance package worth around $37m (£30.3m) made up of 6.5 months’ severance money and previously granted shares. We understand that in return for this he has been asked to enter into a confidentiality agreement and post-termination restrictions, restricting him from working for a competitor for at least 2 years.

Mr Easterbrook was divorced and the relationship was consensual, which may lead to questions about why this ultimately led to the termination of his employment.

The key here, as with many recent senior executives at global companies leaving under similar circumstances, is the potential for an ‘unbalanced relationship’ where a senior employee has a relationship with someone junior to them. This can cause problems in the workplace, leading to other employees perceiving unfairness or potential conflicts of interests.

But is this taking an employer’s influence in their employee’s personal lives too far?

Companies are increasingly introducing policies, that seek to prohibit or restrict relationships between colleagues or set guidelines for how such relationships should be disclosed within the company. Having a policy will go some way to demonstrating that companies are taking steps to effectively manage such situations, especially in light of the MeToo movement.

However, a policy can only go so far. Like every other policy, this won’t prohibit employees doing something in breach of this. It’s also questionable whether people will comply with any such reporting requirement if they believe that a policy is designed to police their personal and private life.

You could take the view that employers should have confidence that their employees can be trusted to effectively manage their personal relationships without any disruption in the workplace. Where problems do arise, employers should be confident in using their existing policies and procedures to effectively manage the situation where work has been compromised because of a workplace relationship going sour for example.

Employers should also be keen to create an environment where employees are confident in reporting any problems they encounter, which may include any inappropriate or unwanted behaviour, under existing anti-bullying and harassment policies or company codes of conduct.

What do you think? Is this a step too far or the only way employers can manage these situations?

Posted on November 21, 2019

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