Office Romance or Sexual Harassment – Recent media attention to cases involving Seven West Media and Amber Harrison, who had an affair with the company’s chief executive Tim Worner, as well as the scandal engulfing the AFL have demonstrated the potential damage – both financial and reputational that relationships between colleagues can have.

So where is the line drawn and what are the potential dangers for employers?

Given that people spend large portions of their lives in the working environment relationships are  bound to happen and in general that is not an issue if the relationship is consensual on the part of both parties. Issues can occur is one party is unwilling at the start or changes his or her mind about the nature of the relationship during the course of.  This is where persistence can be come sexual harassment. For detail about what is considered to be sexual harassment – Read more

The breakdown of a relationship also has the potential to result in cases of workplace bullying – Read more about workplace bullying

Things that employees and employers should be mindful of;
1. Is there a policy?
2. If so, what does the policy say?

Many companies have polices against relationships in the workplace or perhaps rules and/or guidelines as a result of which the relationship may not be a disciplinary issue but the breach of policy may be.

For employers

I would suggest that the policy is reasonable and defensible. If disciplinary action including dismissal for a breach of the policy is contemplated it is important to consider the decision in Rode v Burwood Mitsubishi where is was held a valid reason must be “defensible or justifiable on objective analysis of relevant facts”.

Banning all romantic relationships in the workplace might be considered to be unreasonable, however ensuring employees who have reporting relationships are not subject to bias or conflict of interest when it comes to appraisals and performance management is important.

Without taking away your freedom of choice, managers having relationship with subordinates can be highly problematic due to the inequality of the power in the relationship.

If there is a policy in place employers MUST communicate that policy if they wish to rely upon it. This is best done in training that details the behavioural expectations of the organisation.

If there is no policy, get one.

For Employees

1. Be aware of any policy, rule or guideline the organisation has in place.
2. If in doubt declare the relationship or keep it out of the office (harder said than done, someone always knows or suspects).
3. Keep the relationship at work professional

When everything is happy

Romance of any kind can be a wonderful thing when things are going well but a nightmare when they are not. It might be hard not to bring issues into the work place.  This is where personal relationship issues have the potential to become workplace bullying, harassment and sexual harassment and a situation where an employers may be found vicariously liable to the behaviour of their staff especially mangers – Read more about Vicarious Liability

Office Romance or Sexual Harassment – Other issues for employers to consider

Consider the following as just a few of the impacts that office romances can present to an employer throughout the life cycle of a relationship:

  • Productivity: are colleagues going to continue working as productively and efficiently if they are distracting one another, or exchanging love letters by email?
  • Appropriate behaviour: the obvious example of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace would be having sex at work, but there are many manifestations that may not be suitable for the work environment – such as flirting in front of customers.
  • Favouritism: there is a risk of couples playing favourites at work. They could assign projects, bonuses or other benefits to their partner, or conversely actively avoid giving them benefits in a bid to not look like they are professionally affected by their personal relationship.
  • Perceived unprofessionalism: the very professionalism of one or both parties may be called into question by other colleagues. This risk is particularly pronounced where one person is more senior than their partner, potentially even their direct manager.
  • Sexism: cultural issues around workplace relationships mean that women, and to lesser extent men, may be portrayed as ‘sleeping their way to the top’ by other colleagues.
  • Conflict between the couple: we all know as human beings that emotions can easily transfer from home to work, but this can be exponentially more problematic when those problems at home continue at work. This challenge amplifies when a couple separates and can no longer work effectively together.
  • Conflict between the couple and other employees: Not everyone may be happy for the couple. For example, a same-sex couple could be the subject of homophobia, or a jealous colleague may seek to break up the couple. This opens the door to complaints of workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination.
  • Sexual harassment: if a relationship or advances are unwanted, this is a case of sexual harassment, and warrants immediate action by an employer. Depending on the seriousness, this may lead to dismissal of the offending party and even criminal charges.
  • Unfair dismissal: letting go of one half of a couple could be grounds for unfair dismissal, and will also likely impact the productivity, performance and wellbeing of the remaining person.
  • Rostering: at the simpler end of the spectrum, employers may need to juggle extra logistical issues when you have not one, but two employees seeking time off simultaneously, such as wanting to take parental leave or caring for a sick child.

Office Romance or Sexual Harassment – Further reading

What employers should do in the case of a sexual harassment complaint – Read more

Case involving sexual harassment – read more

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