Love is in the air as Valentine’s day is approaching, and although employees may be looking for love, office romances may cause employers heartburn.
Navigating workplace relationships can be challenging – each is unique. When handling workplace relationships, employers should be mindful to consider each relationship on a case-by-case basis.
Although employers may prefer to outright ban romantic relationships between employees, the reality is that employers have a limited say in their employees’ personal lives outside of the office. However, employers should consider the risks associated with workplace relationships and have a plan in place for mitigating those risks.
Conflicts of Interest and Workplace Relationships
A particular area of concern that arises is where the workplace relationship creates a conflict of interest or a perceived conflict of interest. For example, workplace romances could create actual or perceived favouritism of an employee involved in a relationship. This could result where a supervisor is involved in personnel decisions when their objectivity could be reasonably compromised due to the existence of a romantic relationship. Even where there is no actual favouritism, a relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate could have a negative impact on the workplace environment. Employees may feel that there is preferential treatment of an employee because of the existence of a romantic relationship.
When addressing conflict of interest concerns surrounding workplace relationships, it is important that employers not only address the relationship itself, but also have measures in place to ensure that there is no perception that an employee is receiving special treatment because of a romantic relationship. Hard feelings between co-workers resulting from a workplace relationship can create a disruptive and dysfunctional workplace environment.
Legal Risks Associated with Workplace Romances
A particular risk arises when a supervisory employee engages in a relationship with a subordinate. An important consideration is whether the relationship is truly consensual, or whether the subordinate employee is engaging in the relationship out of fear of reprisal for rejecting their superior.
A fine line can exist between a consensual romantic workplace relationship and sexual harassment. While the most concerning aspect of workplace relationships involving a power imbalance is the potential impact on the non-consenting party, employers should also be aware of legal risks. From an employer perspective, a risk associated with workplace relationships is that they may end in a harassment or discrimination complaint. Employers are obligated by human rights and occupational health and safety legislation to provide a safe and respectful workplace free from discrimination and harassment. When an employer receives a human rights complaint or allegations of harassment, the employer must respond to the complaint or allegations.
Preparing for When Cupid’s Arrow Does Strike
Employers should be mindful that employees may keep their relationships a secret if romantic relationships in the workplace are prohibited. Instead, employers should ensure they address workplace relationships in their conflict of interest policy. A conflict of interest policy should set out clear expectations regarding conflicts of interest in the workplace, including the requirement that employees disclose any relationships that may create a potential conflict of interest. A disclosure requirement allows the employer to determine the appropriate course of action for a relationship. Depending on the circumstances, examples of an appropriate response could be to modify the reporting structure or team compositions.
Providing employees with training on conflicts of interest in the workplace and reviewing the conflict of interest policy with employees on a regular basis may reduce the problems that can arise with workplace relationships.
In summary, an employer is not expected to completely control all aspects of romantic relationships that arise in the workplace, but rather to manage the potentially disruptive and dangerous effects of workplace relationships. While workplace relationships are dynamic and no two relationships pose the same risks to employers, a clear and comprehensive conflict of interest policy addressing workplace relationships will help employers and employees navigate the situation and minimize associated risks.
Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.