What to do when business becomes a family affair

Employing partners or relatives can prove a real headache for HR professionals.

In 2001 Margaret Graham, a police inspector with Bedfordshire Police who was married to a chief superintendent in the same force, had a claim of sex discrimination upheld.

She had complained that a promotion to area inspector had been withdrawn because it would have meant she would be supervised by her husband.

And a survey last year by employment law and HR consultants Human and Legal Resources found that, out of 1,000 employees polled, two thirds had been romantically involved with someone at work.

Promotion prospects

Particularly worrying for HR professionals was the finding that one in 10 of those in a relationship with someone in a more senior position said it had helped them to win promotion.

Managing relationships is a recurrent concern for Fiona Quertani, HR director at the Strode Park Foundation, a charity for disabled people in Kent which has 205 employees.

“We are in quite a rural area and are faced constantly with relatives of employees applying for positions,” she says.

Her priorities include ensuring that people are not being managed by their relatives or partners and that there is transparency in decision-making, disciplinary and promotion processes.

“We follow quite strict procedures and policies. For instance, we have a manager in one of the care units who is partner to one of the care staff there. We had to make the deputy manager his line manager and any disciplinary matters will need to be done by someone else too,” she says.

The reality is that people are often so keenly aware of the potential conflicts that they are much tougher on partners or relatives than they would be on other colleagues.

Prevent accusations

However, having some kind of distance is important for preventing accusations of nepotism or favouritism and so that people can fulfil their potential.

At a practical level, things such as allocating overtime, organising shift patterns and covering for sickness absences can all get complicated in companies where there are lots of relationships or relatives, adds Quertani.

“It is about getting the balance right between the personal and the job,” she says.

In the US, many firms now have so-called “love contracts”. These typically spell out that any personal relationship be consensual and unrelated to the company, that couples understand the company’s rules about sexual harassment and both agree to settle any disputes through binding arbitration rather than lawsuits.

Behaviour contracts

Such agreements may not fit culturally in the UK, but what can work, argues Warren Wayne, a partner in the employment practice of legal firm Bird & Bird, is ‘behaviour contracts’.

These are not legally binding but will often help to clarify any practical difficulties that might arise between the working and the personal relationship.

Such agreements might cover who is responsible for appraisals, who has access to confidential information, how disciplinary issues will be handled and how the two sides are expected to behave if the relationship comes to an end, for example.

While there may be some initial suspicion about such an approach, if it is communicated properly employees will often quickly come around, he suggests.

“Generally they find that it is quite productive. It helps to structure the environment,” he explains.

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