The line between personal and professional lives has gotten blurry. With increased social media usage in the workplace (read more about that on our blog here), and business communications now accessed by smartphones around the clock, it has become harder and harder to keep the two worlds separate. Yet when it comes to relationships in the workplace, the lines between personal and professional need to remain clear. Office romances may have become more common and less taboo than they once were, but the risks are ever-present.

Attitudes on workplace romances are changing and evolving. According to latest numbers from both Canadian and US sources, between 40 to 50 percent of workers have dated a co-worker, with almost a third of those individuals admitting they have done so more than once. Yet it is important to understand the risks of engaging in such conduct, as office relationships that end badly can spiral far beyond the parties involved.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we wanted to take a closer look at office romances and how you can protect your business from getting too deep into the mix.  Love may be in the air… but should it really be in the air around the photocopier?

The Good

            There can be some benefits to relationships that start at work. Many people have met long-term significant others through work, whether at an office party or simply by the water cooler. In his column in Canadian Business Magazine, Richard Branson argued for the benefits of workplace relationships (provided they are navigated correctly), saying “employees falling in love…should be celebrated.”

            There are examples of high profile couples who got office romances right. Melinda French was a Microsoft employee when she started seeing her now husband, who happened to be the company’s founder Bill Gates. The two have been married over twenty years, and continue to work together as generous philanthropists. Michelle Robinson was Barack Obama’s mentor when he was a summer student at her law firm. The two began their relationship professionally, but then began dating, and have been married for over two decades.

Studies show most employees today do not seem to mind if two co-workers are in a romantic relationship with each other, so long as the relationship in the workplace is kept professional. That marks a tremendous change from workplaces just a few decades ago, where any notion of a relationship between co-workers was kept hush-hush from management.

The Bad

            The risks of a workplace relationship are numerous, but the exact status of the relationship says a lot about those risks. Two people in different departments who rarely interact otherwise will not run the same risks as two co-workers who share an office, or even as superior and a subordinate. Relationships between supervisors and subordinates, even when professional and fully consensual, can still carry the air of favoritism amongst employees. It would be nearly impossible for that employee to be promoted on merit without facing accusations that they were involved with someone to get ahead.

            The challenges are even greater if one or both of the parties are married, and carrying on an extra-marital affair at work. While the affair may stay entirely in the workplace, co-workers who know an individual’s spouse are placed in an uncomfortable position of silence, especially if they still bring their spouse to work events or parties. While friends may protect the couple’s secret, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to remain silent.

            While relationships at work happen, those relationships should not be happening on company time. Happy employees can be more productive, but having a significant other at work can also be a continuous distraction, and a risk to productivity when the relationship begins to interfere with workplace duties. This is only made worse when the couple becomes the subject of workplace gossip, which may lead to a tense and uncomfortable environment for anyone who would rather remain uninvolved.

The Ugly

            Break-ups are rarely smooth, but relationships ending between co-workers can be especially volatile. An old flame may be impossible to avoid at work, especially if both work in the same department. If both parties cannot maintain a civil relationship, it may lead one to try to change positions within the company, or even leave the company altogether, at a detriment to the employer. Relationships ending between superiors and subordinates can turn especially sour, and could potentially harm the subordinate’s chances at moving up in the company.

            The other major risk for employers is allegations of sexual harassment, which is strictly prohibited by the Ontario Human Rights Code. Any such harassment based on specific grounds including sexual harassment is strictly prohibited, and this is not just limited to unwanted advances. The Ontario Human Rights Commission states harassment can include repeatedly asking for dates despite objections, sexual jokes, false statements against employees engaging in these relationships with management, or even with each other.

There are further harassment prohibitions beyond the Code as well. In 2009, Bill 168 amended the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include strict prohibitions on workplace violence and harassment. The law holds employers (with more than five employees) responsible for drafting and implementing workplace harassment policies and educating employees on these policies, along with instituting reporting mechanisms for complaints to be dealt with effectively. Employers are responsible for ensuring that harassment stays out of the workplace, and that means staying vigilant, staying informed, and crafting solid policies on the matter.

            While the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal may be the most widely known tale of an office romance ending badly, there are examples even closer to home. In the 2011 Ontario case of Reichard v Kuntz, Reichard was a longstanding senior employee who began an affair with Kuntz, an administrative assistant not under his supervision. Kuntz Electroplating Inc., Riechard’s employer, had a policy requiring disclosure to immediate supervisors about any office relationships in order to protect the business. Reichard had admitted knowing about the policy, but despite office gossip he repeatedly denied the existence of the relationship. Reichard was suspended for lying, and as the management debated how to discipline him appropriately, Reichard defied orders and twice returned to work during his suspension. He was then dismissed for cause, as his employer felt he could no longer be trusted.

What You Can Do

Despite all the risks, there are steps both employers and employees can take to protect themselves when cupid’s arrow strikes at work.

For employers, the answer lies in solid workplace policies. There is no law that will keep consenting adults apart, and creating draconian policies that try to do this are unlikely to be followed. Instead, consider policies that will help employees engage in relationships consciously, and mindful of business interests. Many relationship policies like the one at Kuntz include a duty to inform the employer of any relationships that develop in order to avoid future conflicts. Prohibiting relationships between supervisors and subordinates may also be appropriate for your business, especially if you have a smaller team that would be more closely affected. These policies do not just protect employers, but they offer safeguards in case employees choose not to follow them.

For employees, office romance may be a lot of fun, but being considerate will benefit everyone. Keep the relationship professional in the workplace, and leave the public displays of affection for after hours. If your workplace does have a duty to disclose, it is always better to be honest, and assure management that the romance will not get in the way of your duties. Acting responsibly will not only make things easier at work, but should also leave everyone around you feeling much more comfortable about your relationship.

At Rodney Employment Law, we deal with all types of workplace matters, including workplace investigations and helping employers implement sound harassment policies and training.  Reach out today to find out how we can help ensure you are compliant and keep your business protected.

Blog post by Shaun Bernstein

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