Being at work for most of your waking life means many individuals find themselves developing attractions and relationships with their colleagues. There is clearly common interest, common goals and a similar understanding of work life balance that couples in different industries may not understand. It’s not surprising that romantic relationships can develop in this environment. But what can employers do when employees date?
An employer may be concerned with how this affects an employee’s productivity, as well as the issue of possible sexual harassment, particularly if the relationship ends, and the former couple continue to work together. Employers want to avoid creating an environment in the workplace that is unpleasant for its employees due to the difficulties that inevitably arise in romantic relationships. Many businesses have formal policies in place that discourage personal relationships between co-workers, primarily to prevent any of the above issues arising. Realistically, however, this will be difficult to enforce, and does not entitle an employer to know everything about an employee’s private life, particularly where personal relationships are concerned.
The best thing an employer can do is to manage employee relationships wisely and discourage particular behaviours likely to result in adverse consequences for all parties involved. For example, it may be prudent for the workplace to have explicit prohibitions on romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates. This is to prevent any issues arising about favouritism, including the right to promotions, pay rises or bonuses. If there is a romantic relationship present, it can be almost impossible for a supervisor to make objective decisions about their subordinates.
This may also lead to discrimination claims from workers who aren’t involved with the boss, and see their colleague’s success as unmerited. Having a policy in place to discourage such relationships will help both supervisors and subordinates. And while the heart wants what the heart wants, at least there will be a clear understanding of how to manage the relationship.
Employers should make sure they have clear workplace policies about sexual harassment and a complaints process. Employees need to know the procedures for informing supervisors or the human resource department if they encounter any issues, or notice a colleague is the perpetrator of such actions against others. They need to feel comfortable that there are different people they can talk to, particularly if their supervisor is one of the parties involved. These policies need to be circulated widely for all employees to access easily and understand. This will help to protect employers and staff if any issues arise when co-workers breakup.
For some workplaces, it may be prudent to require the disclosure of any romantic relationship that arises between colleagues. Especially if the relationship is between a supervisor and a subordinate, it may be beneficial to discuss moving either party to another role to prevent any difficulties in managing the relationship in the future and avoid any conflicts of interest. If the relationship is between co-workers of a similar level, it may only be necessary to raise it as an issue if the relationship impacts on the work of both parties and the office environment.
In the end, Cupid’s bow does not determine its target, and there is really not much an employer can do if two co-workers seek to take their relationship further. The best thing an employer can do is foster a comfortable work environment, where all employees feel they can raise issues openly and honestly and communicate any potential issues clearly. If an employer is too strict about relationship management, this will only work to push the relationship underground, and the issues will bubble to the surface eventually regardless. If you are concerned about appropriately handling workplace romance and wish to create policies that deal clearly with sexual harassment, let our employment lawyers know.