Recently Ipswich Council have published a Code of Conduct in which staff are required to disclose if they enter into a personal relationship with a colleague. This is a notoriously tricky area as immediately employees will cry ‘foul’ and cite their right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They will argue that what they do in their private lives is up to them and isn’t within the employer’s domain. Further, if you look at the statistics as to how many people meet their life partner in work, arguably Ipswich are, like King Canute, trying to hold back the sea.
However, from the employer’s perspective, conflicts of interest will be of paramount consideration where two employees are engaged in a personal relationship. Not only are there risks of ‘pillow talk’ and the spreading of information which might otherwise have been confidential, but line managers may be questioned over whether their decision-making processes will be impartial if they have a more complex relationship than a manager/colleague one with one of their team.
Employers may also fear what will happen if the relationship breaks down. I recall a scenario where two senior employees in an organisation were married. One was caught at the work Christmas party doing something she shouldn’t have been doing with somebody she shouldn’t have been doing it with. A nuclear fallout led to both individuals having to leave the organisation as not only had their marriage broken down, but they were unable to work together around the same Board table. Presumably it is this sort of affair (no pun intended) that the employer is seeking to avoid.
I have got to wonder, however, whether Ipswich Council truly had a problem in this area, or is it the case of HR legislating for an infrequent situation and possibly causing more harm than good through the publicity that the policy has received? Aren’t employers better treating staff as adults and expecting them to behave accordingly, rather than drafting prescriptive policies that automatically assume that their conduct will be a problem? Would the Council not have been better to just tackle individual conflicts of interest if and when they arise?