Most employers are not concerned with an employee’s personal life and respect their employees’ privacy. So, when two employees engage in a personal relationship which goes beyond a platonic work relationship, employers are placed in the tricky position of balancing employee privacy with the ability to properly manage, and to be seen to be managing, employees fairly (and everyone will be watching!!)
Romantic relationships between employees in the workplace inevitably happen and can open the employer up to certain risks such as workplace gossip and the morale issues which may accompany it, favouritism (and just as risky, the perception of it), supervisory and reporting issues, legal liabilities which may result from harassment allegations, and the practical issues which arise if and when personal relationships between two employees end. Many employers will already have policies which deal with these issues, notably, nepotism (or Anti-nepotism), conflict of interest, bullying and harassment, workplace violence, and conduct and behaviour, however, a policy dealing directly with personal relationships will help provide employees with rules and the behaviour expectations for workplace personal relationships and with the procedures and safeguards to be followed.
A personal relationships policy may also include employee personal relationships with clients and customers, both romantic and financial.
An “Employer’s Guide to Love in the Workplace” should provide for the following considerations:
- Are there any relationships between employees (or between employees and customers/clients) which should be strictly prohibited? As noted above, romantic relationships between employees may raise suspicions of favouritism, allegations of sexual harassment, and conflicts of interest, however, don’t be tempted to ban all relationships between employees because it would be simpler than managing them; instead, consider the hierarchy of employees and supervisory relationships at your workplace when setting boundaries. Be careful not to discriminate on any basis protected by the various human rights codes, such as family status (which includes marital status) or sexual orientation.
- Although the gossip mill is usually a safe bet to ensure all workplace relationships are soon disclosed , a policy should state that disclosure is required so that steps may be taken, where possible, to accommodate the relationship and to limit the risks, such as transferring an employee to eliminate a supervisory relationship between employees with a personal relationship. Employers must decide how to handle employee relationships in existence prior to the implementation of a policy, so that it does not appear that the employer is singling out one relationship.
- If it is not possible to accommodate the relationship within the workplace, and termination of an employee(s) is being considered, seek legal advice before any decisions are made.
- Be clear that overt sexual behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace, even if the employees believe they are unobserved and on their own time. Nothing makes co-workers more uncomfortable than witnessing physical affection between co-workers (again, just like high school). “Sexting” or other explicit communications (including NY congressman-type photos) on employer electronic devices or internet and email accounts should, obviously, be prohibited, even when sent to someone outside of the workplace, but do we really have to remind people of this?
- If a relationship between employees ends, employers must assess any risk of harassment, violence or professional sabotage which might arise and take steps to minimize such risk. The more likely scenario, however, is that an employer will have to manage two employees who can no longer work productively together. Again, if such a situation makes keeping both employees impossible, employers should seek legal advice to explore their options.
For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see HR5.16 — Personal Relationships policy in First Reference Human Resources PolicyPro® Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba & Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Editions.
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