When Love Breaks Down

Listeners to radio soap The Archers (of which I am one) have been following for the last few weeks the ongoing affair between Elizabeth Pargetter, owner of Lower Loxley, a stately home now used as a Conference venue, and her general manager, Roy Tucker. In true soap opera fashion, Roy’s wife Hayley also works at Lower Loxley, as nanny/childminder to Elizabeth’s children. The affair ended with Elizabeth – much to Roy’s dismay – not only finishing their relationship but suggesting that Roy find another job.

Workplace relationships are an area that can be fraught for any employer, but particularly small ones where key staff can blur the boundaries between the professional and the personal. It’s not that they are uncommon either – it’s estimated that a significant proportion of personal relationships start in work (some even say a majority). Handling the breakdown of a relationship, especially between a “boss” and a “subordinate” can create many problems for a business.

Could Elizabeth sack Roy? Although she was very careful to say initially that she was not doing so, she might well have legitimate grounds for dismissal, under what is known as “some other substantial reason”. By giving Roy a period of paid leave of absence – often known as gardening leave – she’s making it clear that they can no longer work together. However, her subsequent actions of offering Roy’s job to his temporary replacement before finalising matters with him, and failing to follow any sort of process, have given him grounds for a claim of unfair dismissal (leaving aside the issue of whether he could afford to bring a claim). In practice, this is exactly the sort of situation that an employer and employee should try to resolve via a Settlement Agreement – a confidential and legally binding agreement to end an employment relationship – thus avoiding both embarrassing publicity for the business and personal information being made public.

But what about Hayley? Would Elizabeth and she be able to maintain a working relationship, especially as Hayley has now discovered the true reason for Roy’s late nights at the office? Again, Elizabeth might be able to use the “some other substantial reason” argument for dismissing her, but I suspect her case would be much weaker unless Hayley started behaving in an inappropriate manner. Hayley herself has quite understandably stated that she doesn’t really want to work with Elizabeth in the future. Here once again, a settlement agreement might be the logical way forward, unless Hayley resigns in a fit of pique.

Whatever happens – and at the time of writing it remains an unresolved issue – it will be an expensive fling for all concerned. And while The Archers is fiction, the consequences are likely to be the same if something like this happened in your business. It’s a worthwhile reminder of what the “Human” in Human Resources really means.

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