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This article was first published in the May 2020 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Relationships at work are almost inevitable in the professional services sector. It’s common for people to work long hours as part of a close-knit team, to go on work-related trips and to attend drinks functions with colleagues, clients and suppliers. Workplace relationships rank just behind relationships that begin at university or through friends as the most common way to meet a future life partner.

Accountancy firms should foster working environments in which high-performing teams can work closely together. However, they also need to ensure the environment remains professional, so employees can work comfortably and successfully alongside each other, irrespective of any personal relationships that exist in the team.

Accountancy firms have made headlines for sexual misconduct cases over the past few years, in part due to the media attention attracted by the #MeToo movement. There have, for example, been reports of instances where more junior staff have been made to feel uncomfortable by senior employees at after-work drinks parties.

Even the most positive workplace relationships can have a ripple effect on an organisation, from loss of productivity (due to time spent gossiping) to suspicions of favouritism, discrimination or even victimisation. The obvious potential litigation and reputational risks also need mitigating.

It is of paramount importance for firms that sell professional service solutions to their clients to look after and to be seen to be looking after their own people and their working environment. Organisations are finding that historic resolutions to sexual harassment claims, such as non-disclosure agreements in settlement agreements, are no longer an appropriate approach to resolving issues. Proactive prevention, including in the form of policies and training, are a better way forward than reactive ‘cures’ once a claim has been filed.

As a result, firms are increasingly looking to protect themselves by introducing relationships at work policies, to help clarify standards of workplace conduct, set the tone for transparency and tackle poor behaviour in the workplace. Doing this safeguards organisations against future risk, demonstrates progress to regulators, and shows a commitment to changing their own workplace culture.

Pros and cons

Every accountancy practice should, at the very least, work through the logic behind a relationships at work policy, even if they ultimately decide not to introduce one. Every organisation is unique, so the rationale and the policy itself will need to be specific and tailored to your population and culture.

Although a relationships at work policy can be beneficial in setting standards and managing potential conflicts, drafting one can be fraught with difficulties. Codifying your thinking will mean having to tackle some challenging issues right from the outset. This includes the potential ramifications for your culture and the HR workload impact. For example, if two employees begin a workplace relationship, what action will your organisation take to enforce the policy? Is your rationale for action clear? Alternatively, if you don’t intend to enforce the policy, why have one in the first place? How would your regulator view an established policy that was not subsequently enforced?

Are you looking for complete clarity and an outright ban on all workplace relationships? It may be easier to draft such a policy but it will have a significant cultural impact. Perhaps, instead, you are just asking your employees to conduct themselves professionally and trust them to deal with anything that might give rise to a conflict of interest. That is also likely to be a simpler policy to draft.

Somewhere between these extremes is a requirement for employees to notify HR of any workplace relationships that may cause a conflict of interests or adversely affect others. In our experience, this middle ground is a popular option.

A policy is a reflection of your culture and sends a signal to employees of the kind of working environment you wish to create. If it is too stringent, your staff won’t feel respected; too laissez-faire, and other employees (outside of the relationship but possibly impacted by it) may feel the issue is not being taken seriously. You need to balance the rights of those in the relationship with the rights of other colleagues and the needs of the business.

In our view, a ban on workplace relationships is unworkable. It often results in employees hiding workplace relationships, which is precisely what policies seek to avoid, and enforcement is likely to be at odds with human rights law, in particular an individual’s right to a private and family life.

A relationships at work policy is most effective when it provides a clear rationale for its requirements, and practical examples of what may happen if a work relationship is disclosed. Other benefits include the process of considering such an approach offering employers an opportunity to pause for thought on their office culture and the environment they want to foster.

Rachel Clementson is an employment specialist at Bellevue Law.