Personal relationships with clients

Q I am the HR manager of a UK law firm and have heard on the grapevine that one of our new trainees has initiated a relationship with an important client who I know is married. There is no clause against it in her contract and we haven’t got a policy on dating clients and contacts but I am concerned about the impact on her work and the firm’s reputation. What are my options?

A Legally, it is difficult to control relationships that form through work. People are spending an increasing number of hours at work and at work-related events. Therefore, it is inevitable that some relationships will blossom from this. However, it is important for an employer to ensure those relationships do not impinge on an employee’s work both during the relationship and, often more likely, if that relationship ends.

If the relationship starts to affect that employee’s work then that may be dealt with under the usual performance management routes. As you do not have a policy then this employee has not been forewarned that this type of relationship is not acceptable or governed by certain boundaries. Therefore, any formal action would be difficult and most likely unfair.

Before you consider taking any action to limit this relationship you will need to consider whether there has been any precedent. Not only will this ensure fair treatment of this employee but also help guard against a claim of sex discrimination if a male employee has entered into a similar relationship in the past without any action being taken.

You may speak informally with the employee and warn her that the relationship must not affect her work. You may need to discuss issues of confidentiality just as if she were having a relationship with someone who worked for a competitor.

If the relationship ends, you may need to review whether the trainee can continue to work with that client. However, this should not affect her ability to work with other clients.

You could consider putting in place a policy that deals with workplace relationships both with clients and other employees. However, implementing and enforcing such a policy can be difficult. For example, is this any more of a risk than someone having a relationship with a competitor’s employee? The relationship itself is often not the problem more when this impinges on the employee’s performance. This should then be dealt with under the appropriate procedures.

Stuart Jones, employment partner at Weightmans

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