Workplace relationships: Are they ever OK?

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Question marks over whether consensual workplace relationships are ever OK have come to the fore this week after the high-profile firing of McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook.

Experts say there are no hard and fast rules, however, when it comes to policy (and policing) of romantic relationships within organizations.

The firing of Easterbrook, announced Sunday, has served as a timely reminder to workers of the pitfalls of workplace relationships — however consensual they may be — and it's no surprise that most people prefer discretion when it comes to romance in the workplace.

A study on work romances in the U.K., released by jobs website Totaljobs Tuesday, showed that the majority (76%) of the 5,795 Brits surveyed would much prefer to keep their workplace relationships a secret — yet one in five (22%) of those surveyed said they had met their partner through work — more so than through friends, online dating or while at a bar or club.

Other key findings in the study were that two thirds of workers (66%) have either dated a colleague or would consider it, but a third of people (34%) would rule it out. A word to the wise, over half (51%) of those who had dated a colleague experienced gossip from peers — a factor that promotes the culture of silence that surrounds workplace romances.

Rules are rules

Easterbrook was widely credited with turning the company's fortunes around since taking over the leadership in 2015. The share price more than doubled during his tenure. But McDonald's said Sunday that it dismissed the chief executive because "he violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee."

McDonald's code of conduct states that "in order to avoid situations in which workplace conduct could negatively impact the work environment, employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship."

For his part, Easterbrook said the relationship was a mistake and agreed "it is time for me to move on." McDonald's did not provide any further details on the relationship.

While many people have expressed sympathy for him, there is a general consensus that "rules are rules" and workplace fraternization policies (also known as dating or workplace romance policies) or even non-fraternization policies are designed to protect employees and potential workplace harassment, especially from those in the chain of command.

There are a number of other reasons why workplaces might want to discourage romance from developing, aside from any larger concerns over potential accusations of sexual harassment.

Steve Easterbrook, CEO McDonald, poses with Ronald McDonald.
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Workplace relationships could prompt concerns over individual productivity and accusations of favoritism to maintaining a professional and comfortable environment and avoiding possible disruption to that — especially in the event of a breakup.

Kerry McGowan, managing director of The HR Specialists, told CNBC Thursday that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to workplace policies on relationships.

"The issue is often that there are competing requirements — you have the business requirements and personal requirements. In a large organization it might not be such an issue if two employees start a relationship because if they work in different departments it won't impact the business. But problems can occur when two people work in the same department or when there's a subordinate relationship (with a senior colleague)," she said.

She said that while organizations don't have to have (and many don't have) a specific policy on romantic relationships in the workplace, it's good to set out rules to employees about what standards of behavior are expected within the company. She also pointed out that friendships between colleagues can go sour too and lead to problems in the workplace.

When it comes to the Easterbook case, most workplace and human resources experts agree that he should have known the rules and should have demonstrated the standards of behavior expected from everyone in the organization.

Colin Ellis, author of "Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work," also said that while he has "some sympathy" for Easterbrook, "rules are rules," and that workplace culture, and even success, depend on these norms being followed.

"It very clearly states in the company policy manual that employees aren't allowed to have 'consensual relationships' with other employees. You may think this is unfair or possibly even irrational, however, McDonald's makes it clear that's what it is, and it applies to everyone … That's the thing about corporate culture, it belongs to everyone and therefore applies to everyone."

Ellis added that as soon as you start having one rule for one person and another for someone else, you create "special" people who are above the law. "This is the kind of action that undermines workplace cultures around the world and leads to falling productivity, engagement and profitability," he said.

#MeToo movement

Employers have rushed to review and strengthen workplace policies aimed at preventing workplace harassment and sexual misconduct in recent years, particularly in the light of campaigns to end sexual harassment like the #MeToo movement which emerged in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

The Weinstein scandal might have been set against a backdrop of Hollywood glamor, but it also shone a light on everyday workplace relationships and complex issues surrounding power and authority, influence and consent.

Since then, focus on sexual assault and harassment in (and out of) the workplace and how to prevent such behavior has come to the fore and companies are keen to put policies in place protecting their employees from potential abuses of power. Legal experts tend to agree that some workplaces are bound to have become stricter in recent years.

Stephen Woodhouse, an employment solicitor at Stephensons Solicitors in the U.K., said on Monday that McDonald's nonfraternization policy was "influenced, at least in part, by the recent MeToo movement."

"In today's working world we spend more time at work than at home and as an inevitable consequence of this, relationships will form. There is nothing in law which restricts co-workers from engaging in relationships. However, complications can arise particularly when there's an imbalance of power or where colleagues complain of favoritism as a result of these close relations," he said in an emailed statement.

"Some companies will look to impose a policy which seeks to balance the rights of individuals, against the need to protect the business and its employees. Under such policies employees can be required to declare a relationship if one arises. Stricter employment policies may require one of the employees to move departments or even leave the business," he said.

Commenting on the Easterbrook case specifically, Woodhouse said the stance from McDonald's does appear to be a strict one "but as we know very little about the other individual we are not party to all factors in the decision."