5 Hot Tips to Help Employers Handle Office Romances
February 13, 2015
By Kiersten Amos, Former Lawyer at McInnes Cooper
We updated this publication on February 13, 2020.
With people spending so many of their waking hours at or connected to work these days, romantic relationships between co-workers are effectively unavoidable. But an office romance can affect the workplace and pose challenges for employers both when it’s in full bloom and after it’s faded. And in today’s #metoo environment, workplace sexual harassment is front and center in employers’ and employees’ minds – making the liability risks an office romance pose to the employer higher than ever. Employers need to be prepared for the reality of office romances and proactively manage the risks they create.
Office Romances. According to a June 2019 survey on “Romance in the Workplace” by ADP Canada:
- 33% of respondents have been involved in a workplace relationship – about 10% with a co-worker in a senior position with their mutual employer.
- 40% of employees in a workplace relationship kept it a secret from managers, 38% kept it a secret from Human Resources and 27% kept it a secret from everyone at the office.
- 5% felt pressured (to be considered for favourable projects, progress in their career, keep in good standing with the employer or a senior member, and/or to keep their current role) to be in a romantic relationship at work.
Workplace Impact. An ongoing or fizzled office romance can be disruptive for the entire workplace, impacting employee morale and affecting productivity beyond the employees involved in it. The co-working couple might be uncomfortable working together or unable to do so productively. Their fellow employees might feel uncomfortable working with the couple, or perceive a bias if one member of the couple is in a management or supervisory position. And if and when the office romance fizzles, it can lead to a toxic or hostile work environment (affecting more than just the former couple), to employee departures, and in the worst case scenario to one member of the former couple physically harming the other.
Legal Implications. Office romances can also lead to legal issues for employers. The potential legal issues can be as extreme as harassment or discrimination claims arising from a toxic or hostile work environment as between the involved co-workers or other affected co-workers or both. The situation could also lead to complaints under occupational health and safety laws, which require employers to provide a both a physically and a psychologically safe workplace.
5 Hot Tips to Help Employers Handle Office Romances
Office romances are a reality for employers – so be prepared and proactively manage the risks they create. To help employers do just that, here are five hot tips:
- Implement an Office Relationship Policy. Develop and implement an office relationship policy. Don’t make it a “zero tolerance” one (despite the temptation to do so) because these are often very hard to enforce consistently. Do ask employees involved in an office relationship to disclose their relationship to management. The policy should also address how the employer will deal with problems if they arise or affect the workplace, for example, relationships between employees in different levels of authority. And it’s not enough to have a policy; an employer must also implement it by communicating it to employees and consistently enforcing it.
- Don’t ignore office romances or any resulting problems. Managers and supervisors might feel that a personal relationship should be just that: personal. However, if it affects the employment relationship, productivity, or the work environment, then it becomes a workplace issue that an employer can address. For example, if a relationship breaks down and affects employee performance, ignoring the issue may result in the problem festering. The employer should address issues as they relate to performance and counsel the employee on expectations.
- Be fair to employees. If the office relationship involves employees in direct or indirect reporting structures, it might be appropriate to alter the reporting lines. If that change is possible, then the employer must treat both employees involved in the relationship – and any other employees affected by the change–fairly and in an objective and consistent manner.
- Implement a Harassment Policy. One of the more substantial risks associated with an office romance gone wrong is sex discrimination and sexual harassment allegations. A policy to address these issues is a key tool for employers. Office romances aside, employers should have and implement a separate, stand alone sexual harassment policy that also addresses sex discrimination and includes procedures for dealing with complaints, investigations, and resolutions or safe interventions.
- Take complaints seriously. Employers must avoid giving into any temptation to brush away harassment or discrimination complaints related to ongoing or former office romances. It’s critical that the employer take any and all complaints seriously, for the sake of the employer’s potential liability and for the employees’ health and safety. So follow your policy and procedure just as closely and investigate it just as objectively as you would any other complaint. And if police become involved, the employer should still continue its workplace investigation because a workplace investigation and police investigation are conducted for different purposes, resulting in distinctly different but equally important outcomes.
Please contact your McInnes Cooper lawyer or any member of our Labour & Employment Team @ McInnes Cooper to discuss this topic or any other legal issue.
McInnes Cooper has prepared this document for information only; it is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult McInnes Cooper about your unique circumstances before acting on this information. McInnes Cooper excludes all liability for anything contained in this document and any use you make of it.
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