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London Law Firms Introduce Controversial ‘Love Contracts’

London Law Firms Introduce Controversial ‘Love Contracts’

Employee love contracts

Several large UK law firms are asking staff to sign contracts requiring them to disclose any workplace romantic relationships, in a bid to protect junior lawyers from harassment and prevent conflicts of interest.

The policies – dubbed ‘love contracts‘ – are prevalent in US firms, with international law firms based in London now following suit.

Magic circle members Clifford Chance and Linklaters have both introduced policies requiring staff to report workplace relationships, with other firms admitting to similar rules for senior staff alone – the justification being that this will guard against imbalanced workplace relationship dynamics and avoid any professional conflicts of interest.

While other firms have not released details of their policies, Linklaters has published a document, revealing that employees:

“Are expected to discuss the existence of [any] relationship with [their] office/group/practice head, head of function or local HR contact, so that any actual or potential conflict of interest or other risks may be properly managed in the interests of all of those involved in the relationship.”

The document adds: “While we do not prohibit relationships that are consensual between colleagues, employees and partners are reminded of the potential for there to be a conflict of interest.”

It is maintained that the policies are not mandatory, but wording such as “expected” suggests that employees may be treated as falling short of their duties should they fail to disclose their relationships.

Policies could violate employee right to privacy

Some see protocol for office relationship disclosure as justified, with one lawyer stating: “It is all about fairness. If a junior associate is in a relationship with a more senior partner, the firm would not want there to be a perception that that junior lawyer is treated more favourably in terms of allocation of work, for example.”

Linklaters maintains that their ‘love contract’ policy, launched in May 2018, “is not about prying into personal information, but about acting as a responsible business by supporting our people.”

However, critics have called the move both intrusive and impractical, noting that it is not clear to judge at what stage a relationship should require disclosure.

The intrusive nature of the measure and its conflation of personal and professional information has led some to argue that the device breaches human rights legislation provisions, such as the ECHR Article 8 right to a private life.

One employment specialist says that the move is unrealistic and “absolutely a step too far”, stating: “What the firms that are adopting these policies are forgetting is that it is estimated that at least 15 per cent of married couples meet at work.”

However, he adds: “No one will ever raise the privacy point because if you do you run the risk of losing your job.”

The flurry of new policies regarding intimate relationships at work comes in part in response to recent revelations and reinvigorated scrutiny of workplace sexual harassment sparked by the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

To this end, Linklaters has also recently launched a SpeakUp hotline for employees to anonymously report instances of bullying, harassment and discrimination at work.

Experts advise caution

Experts advise those companies who do decide to take up such a policy to proceed with caution, establishing guidelines as to what kind of relationships need to be disclosed.

Linklaters’ policy largely applies to relationships where there is a compromising imbalance of power, such as those “between a partner or director and an employee/contractor or between people where they are in a direct reporting line or where one can unduly influence the performance assessment, career progression, promotion (including the partner election process), work allocation or remuneration of the other.”

Above all, ensuring the confidentiality of any relationship disclosures to managers is crucial – as sensitive issues around sexuality such as orientation, must not be revealed against an employee’s will.

Disclosing an employee’s sexual orientation without their consent, for example, could be grounds for a discrimination claim under the Equality Act 2010.

Employers are also recommended to ask that all reports be made to a single, approachable point of contact.

Advice for employees facing love contract policies is available from trade union non-profit, WorkSmart.

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Our employment lawyers provide advice on the employment aspects of all major business decisions including policies and contracts, employer obligations, TUPE, settlement discussions and agreements and workplace dispute resolution and mediation. For advice, please contact a member of the team on 03456 381381 or email employment@ibblaw.co.uk.