Whether it be a tool to escalate the career ladder, a romantic liaison, an extra-marital affair, or a serious and genuine relationship, office romances are a veritable minefield of potential disasters for employers.
The old adage, “prevention is better than a cure”, is entirely inapplicable to office dalliances. In fact, any attempt to prevent romance in the workplace would ignite flames, rather than smother them, in an otherwise sterile environment. Since any attempt to prohibit office romance is an exercise in futility, employers should make every effort, instead, to regulate it.
Employers bear the burden of governing their employees’ conduct to ensure a harassment free environment. In an era where there is no apparent separation between “work” and “lifestyle”, especially for successful professionals, this is no simple task.
To avoid embarrassing harassment claims, employers can implement policies outlining a code of conduct and sanctions for breaching this policy. Demonstrating a no-tolerance approach to harassment through disciplinary sanctions ranging from suspension without pay, up to and including termination, is an effective deterrent.
Including a fair and confidential mechanism for employees to report harassment in the workplace, without feeling unsafe, followed by a thorough investigation into the complaint is fundamental to this process.
Many employers may wonder what constitutes harassment in the workplace, when it comes to intimate relationships between consenting adults who work together? Canadian courts have addressed this issue and in light of the obvious power disparity between Executives and their subordinates, or supervisors and those that report to them, “consent” is nebulous. For this reason, courts are increasingly intolerant of Executives and/or supervisors who engage in romantic trysts with their subordinates and even more intolerant of the companies that condones this practice.
Employers need a mechanism to govern employee relationships in order to protect the company’s interests. Company interests include ensuring productivity and avoiding conflicts of interest. As sparks fly between cubicle mates, employees become inattentive to their work, focusing more on their romantic liaison. Or worse, become disruptive when relationships go awry, as they often do. Employers should implement and distribute a policy regulating office romance, mandating that office romances should not interfere with the working environment or productivity.
Office romances effect employees who are not directly involved in the affair. The phrase, “Nobody likes a happy couple” has never been more true than in the employment context. Office romances can elicit paranoia and jealousy from coworkers who are quick to allege nepotism. Employers have a duty to investigate these allegations as such conduct constitutes a form of harassment. By conducting a thorough investigation and implementing corrective measures, employers can avoid a publicized harassment claim.
Employers should do the following:
1. Devise a comprehensive policy regulating office romances in conjunction with a harassment policy and ensure that all employees are made aware of the policy;
2. Ensure the policy is clear that intimate relationships between employees should not affect the working environment or productivity;
3. Prohibit intimate relationships between those employees in a supervisory role and those who report directly to them. Implement sanctions up to and including termination for those employees who breach this provision;
4. Mandate that all office romances should be disclosed to Human Resources; and
5. Investigate all claims of harassment and enforce sanctions for breach of the policy.