Family businesses by their very nature involve close relationships. These relationships can work on a number of different levels and types: brother, sister, niece, nephew, husband, wife and civil partnerships all feature.

But what happens when one half of a marital relationship loses their role leaving the spouse employed? This was considered in the interesting case of Hawkins v Atex Group Limited.

An Employment Appeal Tribunal was asked to consider just such a case after the wife and daughter of Mr Hawkins were also dismissed and where the wife brought a claim for marriage discrimination on the basis that she had also been dismissed. In this case the Employment Appeal judge had to decide whether or not an Employment Tribunal had correctly struck out Mrs Hawkins’ claim on the basis it had no reasonable prospects of success or whether it should be allowed to proceed.

The Equality Act 2010 allows a person to bring a claim for marriage discrimination if they receive less favourable treatment from an employer than someone who is not married but whose situation is otherwise materially the same.

In this case, Atex Group Limited had given instructions to Mr Hawkins that after a specific date he must no longer employ family members. The concern of the Company was that it was inappropriately becoming a family business with Mr Hawkins being the Chief Executive and his wife, having provided services for several years through a consultancy, becoming employed as a marketing director in addition to their daughter being senior in the Company’s human resources department.

Following suspension and disciplinary procedures Mrs Hawkins’ was dismissed (together with her husband and their daughter) and she brought a claim of marital discrimination. She claimed that but for the fact she was married to Mr Hawkins she would not have been dismissed and that she had been treated less favourably by the Company than a non-married person would have been. The Company disagreed. It said it did not terminate Mrs Hawkins’ employment because of her marriage but because of her marriage to a particular person, Mr Hawkins, to whom the instruction not to hire family members had been given.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed with the Company ruling that Mrs Hawkins would still have been dismissed even if she had not been married to Mr Hawkins but his “common law spouse” and therefore she had not suffered less favourable treatment on this occasion. As such Mrs Hawkins’ claim failed.

The decision follows a line of similar cases dealing with the sensitive issue of relationships at work of whatever nature.

Just a few of the types of delicate family business issues we have had to deal with include:

• A family member sales manager starting to date a sales manager at a competitor business;
• Whether or not a spouse could properly supervise their husband;
• Whether or not a relationship at work should be declared

For guidance on managing sensitive relationships at work or for further employment law and human resources advice, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Joan.

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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