Relationships in the Workplace

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Considering we spend most of our waking life at work, it’s no surprise how common it is for relationships and attractions to develop in the workplace. A survey conducted by Relationships Australia found that across all age groups, work was in the top three places where people met their spouse.

From HR perspective, workplace relationships can present difficult situations for employers. For example, the relationship may cause a real or perceived conflict of interest. This is particularly evident in relationships where there may be a power imbalance, such as a supervisor dating one of their direct reports.  In cases where relationships don’t work out, the employer could also be exposed to claims such as sexual harassment, bullying and harassment or disharmony in the workplace.

So, what can you do to manage the risks that come with workplace dating? As an employer you have limited ability to regulate an employees’ private activities outside of working hours, however, you are also vicariously liable for the action of your employees. Therefore, you may be able to take disciplinary action against an employee if their out of hours conduct adversely affects you or one of your workers.

Case in point

A decision in the Federal workplace relations system has addressed how a potential conflict of interest has arisen from a workplace romance and ultimately provided a valid reason for dismissal. 

Mr Mihalopoulos was a Manager, who became romantically involved with one of his direct reports. Mr Mihalopoulos’s not only failed to disclose the relationship but when his Supervisor asked him on two occasions about the workplace rumours, he also denied the relationship.  During this time, he went to considerable lengths to help progress the professional capacity of his direct report. He also played a key part in supervising her work, conducting performance appraisals and recommending her for promotion.

Eventually, the relationship turned sour and the direct report took an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) against Mr Mihalopoulos. The relationship was also found to have caused considerable disquiet amongst other employees.

In his ruling, Senior Deputy President Hamberger found that employers cannot stop their employees from forming romantic relationships, however, there is a possibility that such relationships have the potential to create conflicts of interest. It was also found that Employers have a reasonable expectation that employees disclose any potential conflicts of interest so that they can be appropriately managed.

Lessons for HR

Employers should have a clear policy or code of conduct that states what is considered appropriate and inappropriate conduct in the workplace. However, this should be taken one step further to deal with dating or relationships in the workplace. You may wish to address this in an existing policy and include a clause that obliges employees to promptly inform their Manager, or Human Resources of any romantic workplace relationships. This will help employers take appropriate action or steps to ensure no potential or actual conflict of interest arises.

Further, employers should ensure that their policies addressing sexual harassment, bullying, and harassment are regularly reviewed and that employees receive appropriate training. In the event that a relationship sours, employers have an obligation to ensure that their employees continue to work in a safe environment.

If you need assistance in implementing or reviewing workplace policies and procedures, contact our experienced HR Consultants at Preston HR.