Should you have to declare work friendships? ITV thinks so

The Schofield affair has prompted the broadcaster to enact rules requiring staff to disclose all relationships with colleagues – even platonic ones. Is this a reasonable policy or an intrusive overreaction? 

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Earlier this year, the former presenter of This Morning, Phillip Schofield, left ITV after having engaged in a romantic relationship with a younger male colleague.

He resigned after admitting to lying to his managers about the relationship, which he called “unwise but not illegal”. Nonetheless, the negative publicity generated by the affair seems to have irked ITV’s top brass.

According to a report in The Sunday Times, a document has circulated ITV, stating that employees must declare relationships they have with other members of staff. These are defined as “a close connection, such as a partner or significant other”; “a person living in the same household”; and “anyone involved in a sexual, romantic or close relationship, or friendship”. The document warns that anyone failing to disclose such information faces disciplinary action that could culminate in their dismissal.

While some transparency and oversight in this area might be helpful for an employer, some HR experts and lawyers are doubtful about the practicalities of managing this policy, as well as its fairness and effectiveness.

The importance of trusting your employees’ judgement

For Dannielle Haig, a business psychologist and managing director of DH Consulting, it’s important that people feel trusted by their employer. ITV’s approach, she suggests, risks instilling an unhealthy culture of suspicion.

People don’t want to feel that they’re being watched all the time

“As long as staff are getting on with their jobs, it shouldn’t make any difference what they do outside work. People don’t want to feel that they’re being watched all the time,” Haig says. “That in itself might become a distraction.”

She adds: “It’s a bit childish, isn’t it? Are staff really expected to say to their bosses: ‘OK, well, I used to be friends with Jane before we had an argument, but I just thought you should know’? This feels intrusive and a huge waste of time.”

Hannah Ford, partner at law firm Stevens & Bolton, agrees, noting the “potentially huge administrative burden” that ITV’s policy could impose. If it’s activated by “hair triggers”, such as each occasion some colleagues go for a drink after work together, she says, it would be extremely hard to police.

Ford adds that, if the sanctions for non-compliance include dismissal or, indeed, any sort of disciplinary action, the policy “would be susceptible to legal challenges, particularly if failing to report an innocuous friendship were the breach in question. What constitutes a friendship is, after all, deeply subjective.”

Equally, firms would be wise not to underestimate their employees’ capacity for self-awareness. Sophie Earles-Barrett, people and talent manager at Plus X Innovation, a chain of co-working spaces, thinks people are likely to “understand the difference between useful information” for a manager, such as whether colleagues are dating, and “irrelevant” details, such as whether they often have lunch together.

Where a code of conduct would help

For Jo Mackie, director and head of employment at law firm Lawrence Stephens, the fundamental problem with the policy and how ITV has communicated it is that it comes across as an overcorrection. 

Keeping policies as simple to follow as possible is the key

“ITV is doing something that seems extreme because it clearly failed to manage the earlier situation,” she says. “That’s unfortunate for all involved. But, if senior staff members understand their responsibilities at the start, this may not happen so often.”

Mackie would advise employers against taking a “blanket” approach to dealing with workplace relationships. Instead, she recommends assessing each situation on a case-by-case basis.

Those assessments could be aided by the existence of a clear code of conduct to refer to, according to Earles-Barrett. “In my experience”, she says, “keeping policies as simple to follow as possible is the key, as well as ensuring that everyone understands the reasons behind them.”

HR policies should be based on realistic expectations

ITV’s draconian new policy serves as a warning for other employers: there’s a fine line between transparency and privacy. This isn’t to say that firms should have no oversight of workplace relationships. If there is a potential abuse of power, conflict of interests or material risk to someone’s wellbeing when two colleagues become close, their employer is entitled to know about that relationship.

But the development of platonic relationships at work helps to strengthen team spirit and could provide welcome support for people who may be struggling. 

ITV’s policy feels misguided, because it presumes that any type of relationship between colleagues is a risk. Red-flagging all friendships as potentially problematic could alienate a large proportion of employees. Moreover, it could make the organisation look overbearing and mistrustful to any potential recruits. 

ITV could probably be forgiven if this policy had come about in the immediate aftermath of the Schofield affair. But that this is the result of presumably months of talks is disappointing.

Article updated 27/10/2023: A spokesperson for ITV says: “ITV has had in place a policy on relationships at work since October 2022. Like all of our people policies we keep them under review and update them periodically. The relationships at work policy was most recently reviewed and updated in October 2023.”