Following the affair that surrounded former image boss Julian Reichelt, stricter regulations will apply to Axel-Springer-Verlag in the future. Springer managers are now required to disclose potential conflicts of interest when they enter into a relationship with a subordinate. Are these regulations allowed in the first place?
Axel Springer has changed its Code of Conduct and now states in this Code of Conduct that all employees with technical and/or disciplinary responsibility must disclose close personal relationships with colleagues, managers or employees in order to make conflicts of interest transparent.
Originally, in the initial media excitement about the Reichelt affair, it was announced that romantic relationships in the company would be generally prohibited in the future. However, such a ban will not last. There is no legal basis in Germany for such far-reaching breaches of privacy on which such a ban could be based.
Relationship bans do not stand up to labor law scrutiny
Internationally operating companies in particular often have a code of conduct that they claim is valid worldwide. In the United States, the rules of conduct for employees can be stricter than German law allows. If a multinational company also rolls out its regulations in Germany, this is not possible simply because of cultural differences, but also because of the different legal situation.
In 2005, the globally active American retail group Walmart had to be directed by LAG Düsseldorf (LAG Düsseldorf, Resolution of 14 November 2005 – 10 TaBV 46/05) that employee relations cannot be prohibited in an ethical guideline in Germany. German labor courts assert that “establishing and maintaining personal relationships (also) in the workplace remains a private matter for those involved” (eg, Berlin Labor Court, Judgment of February 27, 2015 – 28 Ca 16939/14).
Code of ethics is widely accepted in the United States
If a company issues compliance rules in Germany, it must adhere to these limits. Internationally, and especially in the United States, companies sometimes have far-reaching powers to ban employee relations. In 2018, the case of Brian Krzanich, CEO of chip maker Intel, caused an uproar. Krzanich had to resign due to a romantic relationship with an employee, because he violated the company’s internal code of conduct. Mc Donald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook also had to step down in 2019 due to an inner love affair.
The problem: creating a conflict of interest
The relationship in and of itself would not be a problem in Germany because it is a private matter for those involved. However, it becomes problematic when a conflict of interest arises in the company or even hierarchical power is abused to establish sexual relations. or if there is unjustified preferential treatment for promotions or other services as a result of the relationship. Steve Easterbrook had given his mistress hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock options. Companies want to prevent such dangers.
Compliance regulations possible?
Compliance rules such as the Axel Springer Code of Conduct are only legal if the interests of employees are also appropriately considered. The employer’s operational interest in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, addressing abuse of positions of authority and preventing improper privileges or the awarding of benefits due to romantic relationships, must be weighed against the employee’s constitutionally protected personal rights, which prohibit employer interference in their private affairs. sphere. It is therefore not possible to impose a blanket ban on love relationships in the workplace. The question of whether romantic relationships should be reported is also a legally sensitive one. The business owner cannot dictate to anyone the partners of his choice. It is not in his purview and for this reason the general obligation to report is difficult to defend.
Whether the alternative chosen by Axel Springer, to regulate the reporting obligation only where there may be a conflict of interest due to a romantic relationship between managers and employees, is upheld by the labor courts remains to be seen in the event of a dispute. Against the background of the legitimate private interests of employees, a violation of these reporting obligations cannot be considered so serious that it can justify severe penalties in labor law such as dismissal. It remains to be seen how the labor courts will adjudicate such cases.
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