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Beyond #MeToo: the reputational risks of turning a blind eye to sexual relationships between (some) colleagues

Philip Schofield's reputation is in tatters following his admission that he lied about a relationship with a much younger colleague. ITV haven't emerged from this saga unscathed either and as the spotlight focuses on how it handled the situation, this blog examines the wider issues at stake.

ITV aren't the first employer to get into difficulties following allegations against important members of staff and, sadly, won't be the last. This problem isn't confined to the media either. Over the years our employment team have dealt with situations where employers - across a range of sectors - have deliberately, or tacitly overlooked issues involving the behaviours of key members of staff that they wouldn't tolerate in others. Complaints are brushed under the carpet, victims leave the business (sometimes with a pay out) and nothing changes. 

That's not a credible strategy. Once the story finally emerges, the reputational fall-out can have a devastating impact on an organisation's brand, reputation and credibility in the marketplace. 

So, what should employers do to manage this type of risk?

1. Put in place a policy on relationships in the workplace

Banning staff from having a relationship with a colleague will usually be an unjustified interference with their right to a private life. Most employers (sensibly in my view) don't go down that route. That doesn't mean that you can't put in place 'rules' which your staff have to follow if they become involved with one another. But these have to be reasonable.

The best way to strike a fair balance between protecting your legitimate business interests and the rights of your staff, to pick and choose who to date, is to put in place a policy on relationships in the workplace. Most of the policies I've seen focus on relationships where one party is in a position of authority or power over the other. It's important to know about these types of relationships because: 

  • There is likely to be a conflict of interest between the senior party's responsibilities and their relationship - particularly if they supervise their partner at work. With the best will in the world, they will find it difficult to be objective about the performance of their partner. That could skew their appraisal ratings, which, in turn, may impact on their partner's pay, bonuses and other benefits.  
  • It may damage morale or create resentment within the wider team if co-workers believe (rightly or wrongly) that a colleague is receiving preferential treatment because of their personal relationship with the boss. 
  • The parties may share confidential information that they wouldn't normally be privy to.
  • It may damage working relationships if the relationship ends and expose the business to discrimination claims.

There's also the issue of consent. Whilst you can assume that most people in a relationship have entered into it freely, that may not be the case if there is a is a big age gap between the parties, their status or the other party is vulnerable in some way. People in positions of power can influence decisions about who to hire and fire. Junior members of staff may feel that they have to accept an invitation to go out with someone senior because they are worried that their job is at risk if they say no. They may also worry that they won't be believed if they complain. You'll only know if there's a problem if someone brings it to your attention (see section on 'speak out' culture below), or you talk to the junior employee about it. You'll need to handle the conversation carefully and reassure them that you will support them if they are being coerced into any form of intimacy.

Your policy should clearly explain when an employee has to tell you about their personal relationships, and the person they need to talk to (which could be HR). This will usually include the above scenarios, but you could could expand it to cover people who work in the same department (even if they're on the same level), or if they are in a relationship with a client, supplier or customer with as part of their job. Most policies also include family relationships too.

The policy should also explain why you need this information and what you will do with it. For example, you may have re-allocate line management, move one party to a different team (with their consent) or change their shift patterns (again with their consent) to ensure that their relationship doesn't impact on their work. 

2. Encourage a 'speak out' culture

If your organisation encourages staff to raise concerns (and supports them once they've done so), you will be able to deal with any issues at an early stage. But, giving employees the confidence to report and hold others accountable will only work if they know that they won't suffer any adverse consequences for voicing genuine complaints. That means that you'll need to ensure that staff aren't punished for speaking out - particularly against people in a position of power over them and their careers. They should be able to easily report concerns and not face any difficulties for doing so. 

Aside from the threat of retailation, employees won't speak out if they don't trust management to do anything with the information. Whether that means downplaying the issue or ignoring it entirely, if your staff don’t believe that you'll take action, they won’t bother to say anything. 

It's helpful to have a policy to clearly explain what staff should speak out about and how they go about doing it. 

3. Training

As with any new policy, you need to promote it via training or team meetings etc and make sure that staff know how to access it and who to speak to if they have any concerns. If it is a new policy you may want to encourage people to come forward with any disclosure in an agreed time frame.

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