disciplinary hearingsdiscriminationdismissal by employerunfair dismissal

Everyone has a film they don’t usually admit to liking.  For some people, it is Mamma Mia (no, not mine).  For others, it might be a terrible James Bond film (Quantum of Solace anyone?) or something for the kids (Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs perhaps?)

My film-related guilty pleasure is easy: 500 Days of Summer.  Oh, where to start.  The film starts with the narrator making the infamous statement: “Boy meets girl.  Boy falls in love.  Girl doesn’t.  This is not a love story.” The reason I like it so much?  Because, as per the statement, it isn’t a love story – the boy and girl (called ‘Summer’ – get it?) initially like each other, then the girl pulls away and it (briefly) destroys his life.  It is the opposite to a typical ‘rom com’ but slightly dressed up and disguised as one.

Why am I owning up to an embarrassing love of 500 Days of Summer?  Because, recently, a lot of media attention has been focused on individuals leaving large companies due to romantic relationships in the workplace.  With it, the media seems to have gotten stuck within the American-style mindset of presuming that employers can dismiss an individual due to a workplace relationship causing minor embarrassment; however, this isn’t really the case.

So, to start, in America, yes, it tends to be much easier to dismiss staff for workplace relationships.  However, it is generally much easier to dismiss staff for near anything in America in comparison to the UK!  The main reason being that we have much clearer and more robust employment law protection for staff here.

In the UK, therefore, it isn’t usually possible to dismiss an employee simply because they are in a relationship with another member of staff.  In fact, quite the reverse: whilst in America, an employer can normally simply state that they have a policy against it, it wouldn’t sway things conclusively in the UK to simply ‘have a policy’ because the relevant discrimination and Unfair Dismissal legislation here prevents negative actions against staff for unfair or discriminatory reasons.

This is because, in the UK, the relevant cases indicate a more ‘conflict of interest’-related mindset.  By this, I mean that any dismissal linked to the simple fact of being in a relationship with a colleague tends to require the employer to show that terminating employment was the lesser evil as against a continuing conflict of interest. 

Let’s have a look at two examples which, to avoid delving too much into complex case facts, are loosely based on relevant Anglo-Welsh cases:

  • SCENARIO ONE – Two police personnel are in a secret relationship together.  One (who we will call ‘Steve’) is the Team Leader of a specialist firearms team (which is trained to respond to severe threats to the public, including acts of terrorism) and the other (who we will call ‘Sandra’) has applied for promotion into that team and fulfils all the criteria.

    Sandra’s request is granted and she works in the team for 3 months.  However, after 3 months, it is discovered that her and Steve are in a relationship together.  There is nothing wrong with this on a human level but, operationally, this is a big issue because Steve, as Team Leader, needs to dispassionately utilise his team members and there is a risk that he would panic about sending Sandra into a dangerous situation and/or display favouritism towards her and/or become more likely to make impulsive and emotional decisions within any high pressure situation.

    The police force therefore offer Sandra an equivalent role elsewhere (or a sideways move within her local police force area) but she refuses and, given that she can’t effectively work in any team, she is dismissed.  Whilst the process and procedure would be tricky from the employer’s point of view, this is a potentially fair dismissal because there is a potential and serious conflict of interest arising from their relationship.

    Note how there is no mention of embarrassment or awkwardness above, it is simply about exploring a potential conflict of interest.
  • SCENARIO TWO – The Headmaster of a school lives with a female partner who is registered on the Sexual Offences Register.  The Headmaster is aware that he is required to disclose this to the Board of Governors in order to comply with safeguarding requirements (particularly as the Headmaster brings home information relating to pupils and has the power to grant access to the School site) but he intentionally fails to do so.

    There is a clear risk of the Headmaster granting his female partner access to the school site, and therefore putting children at risk, and, also, the partner obtaining access to information about children within the household.

    In addition, during the investigation, the Headmaster describes the likelihood of his partner being a ‘risk’ to children as ‘very low, if not zero’.  Obviously, if the individual was a stranger to them, this wouldn’t be their true analysis and, therefore, there is a very real conflict here.  Again, there is a potentially fair case for dismissal against the Headmaster here, particularly given the Headmaster’s refusal to ask the partner to move out before a decision on his future is made.

Obviously, the above two scenarios are very specialist in nature and show that, in comparison with the USA at very least, there is a higher legal bar towards dismissing an individual on grounds of a workplace relationship in the UK.  In saying this, employers with an active Personal Relationships Policy will stand more chance, particularly if that policy outlines the exact operational reasons behind having that policy and/or the potential detrimental effects on the organisation of allowing personal relationships (albeit awkwardness alone should not be a factor).

Overall, the 500 Days of Summer film has a potential happy ending (he meets a girl called ‘Autumn’ very briefly) and, in most cases, a personal relationship at work alone doesn’t spell disaster minus any hidden complications.  So, there we go, as well as making better cups of tea than the US of A, we also have more secure workplace relationships…