Unsurprisingly, there is a wide range of useful information available to assist organisations in preventing and (should the need arise) addressing unwanted sexual advances, or indeed any type of inappropriate conduct in the workplace. It therefore follows that many workplaces will already be equipped with relevant policies covering sexual harassment, and subsequent procedures to deal with such issues - at least to some extent.
If your workplace is without such a policy, I would suggest that you make implementing one an immediate priority!
This is particularly important at the moment ,given the current spotlight on sexual harassment following the recent announcement by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins of the national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, which will focus on identifying examples of good practice and making recommendations for change.
But what about consensual, or reciprocated romantic relationships? Do you have a Relationships in the Workplace Policy covering those? Have you considered whether this is even something that your workplace should have a policy on - or are you appalled by the suggestion?
Why you need a Relationships in the Workplace Policy
Whilst the idea of having such a policy in your workplace may initially conjure thoughts of intruding on the private lives of your employees (thus inherently defining it as a matter of no relevance to the workplace), the reality is that some romantic relationships do have the potential to impact on the workplace.
Below are a few relevant examples that I suggest taking into account when deciding if your organisation needs to implement a Relationships in the Workplace Policy:
- If a co-worker were to witness inappropriate behaviour by a couple, it may lead to them feeling uncomfortable, and result in a sexual harassment claim;
- Romance between a manager and their subordinate could be viewed as a conflict of interest, and could potentially give rise to favouritism. Even where the manager does not exercise their power to the benefit of the subordinate, there may be a perceived bias given the relationship. In turn, the relationship is likely to undermine the impartiality of all of the manager's decisions; and
- Whether the relationship is between a manager and their subordinate, or simply between two co-workers, questions relating to the productivity of those in the relationship (are likely to come in to question - whether justified or no). This is particularly relevant if they participate in closed door meetings or discussions out of the ear shot of others, which may not be uncommon for other employees in the workplace, and had it not been for the romantic relationship would not be questioned.
What should your Relationships in the Workplace Policy look like?
It is important to remember that your overall objective should never be to intrude on the private lives of your employees - rather, the purpose of any 'Workplace Relationship Policy' should be to educate your employees on:
a) why you as the employer may need to know about the relationship; and
b) how the relationship can be managed in the best interests of all workplace stakeholders.
The above points should be made very clear in the opening of the policy.
Ideally, your Relationships in the Workplace Policy will also clearly state:
- at what point your employees are required to disclose a relationship, with specific directions on who they are to disclose the relationship to;
- that where applicable, and if considered appropriate, the confidential nature of the relationship will be maintained;
- the possible consequences of failing to disclose the relationship when required (for example, any relevant disciplinary action);
- examples of when the relationship may become a concern for the employer;
- examples of when a conflict of interest may arise;
- examples of what measures may be put in place in order to address any employer concerns, or perceived conflicts of interest (e.g. changing reporting lines); and
- examples of unacceptable behaviour/interactions between the couple (e.g. displays of public affection).
Given that some relationships may be more of a concern than others due to their likely impact on the workplace (typically, the more senior the employees
are, the higher the chance of conflict, and in turn, the potential that it will impact the workplace), the best thing for your organisation to do is
implement a policy that allows you to manage each relationship that is brought to your attention on a case by case basis and not adopt a one size fits
all approach for dealing with relationships.
Coleman Greig Lawyers are experts in Employment Law & WHS, and can assist your business in navigating the complex area of romantic relationships in the workplace and help you put policies in place to mitigate any potential risks to your business.
About the author: Anna Ford is a Senior Associate at Coleman Greig Lawyers