It was reported recently that the Royal Navy’s first female warship commander has been relieved of her post following allegations of an affair with an officer under her command (a comment on their working hierarchy rather than any judgment on their alleged romantic relationship, I should make clear).  

Sarah West is undoubtedly an important figure – a role model for other female officers in the Navy. The debate on equality within the Armed Forces is rather boring now – for there even to be any debate about whether women should be able to enter the Armed Forces is quite ridiculous as we sit here in 2014. However, you immediately realise there remains a major issue when you read comments by Lord West (no relation to Sarah), who said, “If she had a relationship with someone under her command then she’s rather let down other women in the Royal Navy, because there are people who will jump on this and say this is why women shouldn’t be on ship”.  No mention here of male officers having relationships with female ratings or of such liaisons between male crewmembers.  

Quite apart from the fact the turn of phrase ‘women shouldn’t be on ship’ really should have been left in the 18th Century, why should the ability of any other woman to perform a senior role in the Navy be questioned due to the (alleged) actions of one individual?  I don’t recall anyone saying ‘men shouldn’t be allowed on ship’ when the Costa Concordia cruise ship tragically ran onto rocks when the Captain was (allegedly) trying to impress his mistress by sailing close to shore.  

Questions of sexism apart, however, there is another question to be answered here: is it sensible to have a policy on relationships at work to try to prevent this sort of thing happening?  

In the case of the Royal Navy, there is a ‘Code of Social Conduct’ which prohibits any personal relationships which compromise ‘operational effectiveness’. Numerous companies have similar policies in slightly less military terms but to the same basic effect, and we have seen a rise over the last few years in organisations wishing to introduce them.  

Such policies can be sensible. It is prudent to ensure that you guard against any appearance of nepotism, bias or differing standards when it comes to reporting lines, duties, appraisals or criticism of colleagues. These considerations are part of ensuring that any organisation maintains ‘operational effectiveness’, and in that way, the intention is no different from the policy of the Royal Navy.   By the way, there has been nothing in the Press to suggest that operational effectiveness has actually been prejudiced in this case, whatever did or did not happen, or that the fact of any sexual relationship has even been established.  

The problems within these policies, however, can be (i) sometimes they are difficult to enforce (especially without having someone in the office who knows the gossip, and reports it), (ii) ensuring enforcement takes the same form across the board (so senior managers who have an affair and junior members of Accounts are all treated in the same way), (iii) in cases where the policy seeks to prohibit personal relationships in the workplace there is the very real issue of what you do about relationships that formed prior to the introduction of the policy, and (iv) put bluntly, the document that can prevent fit and healthy human beings kept in close quarters having sex with each other has not yet been invented.  

So, how should you approach governing relationships at work?  

As long as the focus of your policy is on dealing with situations in which managers may be perceived to be giving more favourable treatment to those subordinates with whom they are in a relationship, or those situations in which a security risk is created or where certain behaviours can make it uncomfortable for colleagues, a policy on relationships at work should be justifiable.   However you phrase it, the protection of operational effectiveness is a legitimate aim of any employer.  

Finally, it is worth remembering that if you have employees who went to the Navy Admiral Lord West School of Modern Manners, it might be time to re-run your equality and diversity training!