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Romance on the job: what's an employer to do?

Romance on the job: what's an employer to do?

Adam Gorley, Assistant Editor, HRinfodesk.com---Canadian Payroll and Employment Law News, June 2010

Romance in the workplace is a perennial concern for employers and their employees. When people work closely together, particularly over long hours with little free time to socialize outside of the workplace, it's easy for budding attractions to develop into flirtations, and to blossom into romances. And why not? Busy workers deserve to have love in their lives, don't they? But we know it's not quite that simple. That's why we asked in our last HRinfodesk poll: “Should employers be worried about workplace romances?”

There are countless issues that arise from the topic of workplace romance. No doubt every relationship between co-workers brings with it unique difficulties. For that reason, we limited the options and focused on relationships between employees and management. Of the respondents, 49 percent said “Yes”, employers should be worried about romance in the workplace; 14.5 percent said “No”, employers don't need to worry; and 36.5 percent said employers only need to worry if a romance involves a manager or supervisor.

That's more than 85 percent of respondents who think employers should be concerned about workplace romances in one form or another.

Some of the latest close-to-home numbers on workplace romance come from the US job-search sites, CareerBuilder.com and Vault.com. According to CareerBuilder, 37 percent of US workers have engaged in a workplace romance at some time in their lives, and 32 percent of those went on to marry their fling. According to Vault, however, the number is much higher: 59 percent of respondents said they'd had a romance at work, but only 19 percent said they eventually married the person.

Regardless of the disparities between the surveys, it's clear that romance on the job remains an important issue. Interestingly, the numbers also indicate that employers have become more tolerant of such relationships. CareerBuilder found that 67 percent of employees in workplace couples weren't secretive about them. With that in mind, it's important to consider the implications of workplace romances for those involved, their co-workers and the workplace and work in general. According to the Law Society of Upper Canada, these dangers include: lowered productivity of those involved in the affair, conflicts of interest with other employees, personal relationship problems negatively affecting other workers and harassment claims or retaliation at the end of a romance. I'm sure we could come up with a few more if we tried!

Despite the high level of concern about workplace romance, the Vault survey found that only 25 percent of workplaces have a policy on the matter. A policy should almost certainly be your starting point for managing workplace romances, but it is a good idea to diversify your strategy. That means creating a workplace that is not hostile to relationships, where employees don't feel that the employer will retaliate against them for dating a co-worker, but probably stopping short of encouraging the practice!

Remember, happy workers are healthy and productive workers, and caring relationships make people happy-as long as your employees aren't so lovestruck that they can't focus on their work or that they make decisions that negatively affect the company.

What about that secrecy?

Is it a good or bad idea to keep a workplace romance secret? Workers keep their intimate relationships to themselves for many reasons: fear of reprisal is probably the main one, but employees also worry about the appearance or reality of favouritism, interference with work, jealousy or other negative feelings from co-workers, and so on. Special difficulties can arise when a workplace romance ends-either well or badly-and the workers try to move on, but allow their feelings to affect their work performance.

Employment lawyer Robert Smithson advises that Disclosing workplace relationships is the best strategy. Employers can't legally prevent employees from getting together, although they often try to do so-or try to regulate workplace relationships. Thus, Smithson argues that letting co-workers know about a workplace romance will prevent the significant downsides of keeping it secret.

He cites one case out of British Columbia in which a manager dated a subordinate for three years. In a clear conflict of interest, the manager conducted his partner's performance reviews, approved her salary increases and even promoted her, despite her inexperience and questionable performance. The couple continually denied their affair, and it eventually ended badly. Subsequently, the “detritus of the sexual affair spilled over into the office, creating a distraction for the other employees and a tense atmosphere that disrupted their work and the business of the branch”.

Eventually, the employer fired the manager for breach of trust and conflict of interest, and the Appeal Court agreed, saying that the manager's “dishonesty deprived [the employer] of the opportunity to take action to resolve the problems in the branch which were the result of his conduct.” In other words, if the couple had conducted their relationship in the open, the employer could have mitigated the potential negative effects, for example, by placing the pair in separate departments thus eliminating the power imbalance between them.

However, many workers still perceive that their employers will frown on workplace romances, whether due to policy or example. And many will continue to carry on relationships in secret. The case above demonstrates clearly that employers have some recourse against employees whose behaviour breaches the employment relationship and interferes with the work environment.

At the same time, employers can be more accommodating to workplace couples. It seems likely that most companies will at some point have employees who hook up, and it is probably better to be understanding than to frighten them away.

The power problem

While any workplace romance involves risks, relationships between supervisors and subordinates are especially fraught. Conflicts of interest, favouritism, complaints of harassment- these are all things you probably don't want happening at your workplace, and they're all common effects of intimate relationships between managers and staff members.

The thing is, in a healthy, non-work romantic relationship, power is distributed equally between the couple. But in a supervisor-subordinate relationship, this can never be the case. The supervisor will always have the upper hand. Within the context of the relationship, this can be damaging enough, but in the context of the workplace it can be a disaster. For example, several jurisdictions across Canada include in their legal definitions of sexual harassment something like, “any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that might be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion.”

This means that if the more powerful party in a workplace romance coerces the less powerful party into anything, or threatens the person with reprisal, that's sexual harassment. Even in consensual relationships, the subordinate could make a reasonable claim that the supervisor is exploiting her or his power to maintain the relationship.

You might have noticed a particularly high-profile case in the news lately. A former manager with publishing giant Penguin Canada has alleged that her then-boss, the CEO of the company, sexually harassed her for three years, culminating in an assault and eventual termination. The boss claims it was all consensual, but the employee says not so much, and it will probably take the courts months to sort it out, at great cost to the company and the boss, if the manager wins, or if the company offers to settle.

One lesson is that what is consensual to one person might be offensive to another. Another is that the imbalance of power between the parties in a workplace relationship can result in situations that contravene employment and human rights law, such as wrongful dismissals, which couldn't arise between equal workers.

Policies and more

If you're serious about addressing workplace romances, it's imperative that you develop an appropriate policy on the matter. Your policy will inform employees and management alike of the types of behaviour your company will accept with respect to workplace relationships, discuss the potential effects and risks of workplace flings, including harassment, outline the penalties for stepping beyond the boundaries of appropriate behaviour and recommend a training program for all staff.

It might be better and easier to manage employee relationships rather than attempting to restrict or regulate them. This might mean, for example, discouraging or preventing employees who are married or romantically involved from working in the same department or from having direct power over the other.

Yosie Saint-Cyr, Managing Editor of HRinfodesk, offers a detailed list of actions you should consider when putting together a workplace romance policy and procedures in Dealing with office romances.

HRinfodesk also offers an Office romance sample policy that should be a useful starting point in developing a customized company policy. Search for “romance” on HRinfodesk for more.