By Simon Abraham

15 September 2015

The issue of workplace relationships can pose real problems for employers. At the most basic level, these relationships can have an effect on the dynamic of the workplace and, at worst, can alter perceptions of fairness and favouritism, particularly where relationships exist between management level employees and subordinate staff members. It is important to ensure that you are prepared for this issue and are not exposed to claims of bullying, unfairness or favouritism – all of which are real possibilities in this murky landscape.

Having a well-developed and documented framework for dealing with workplace relationships is essential and provides employees with consistency and knowledge on how to tackle this issue, as well as ensuring that your office does not inadvertently make employees feel oppressed in relation to their social lives.

The Fair Work Act 2009 sets out workplace standards regarding fairness and equal opportunity in the workplace. Dismissing employees because they have formed an office relationship, or sanctioning troublesome employees who raise issues with workplace relationships can expose an employer to discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.

The options available to employers are as follows:

1. Do nothing
Employers who take a casual approach to workplace relationships run the risk of exposing themselves to several issues. Open displays of affection between co-workers can be disturbing and distracting in the workplace and can lead to complaints. Provided the relationship is between employees with the same level of responsibility, the risk of disruption in the workplace may be minimal. However, where subordinate employees are in relationships with management-level employees, the employer could face claims of unfair preferences being placed on employees and could severely alter the current workplace dynamic.

2. Ban it

Whilst employers want employees to feel comfortable in the office and abstain from interfering in the personal lives of employees, this is not always possible. The simplest approach is to ban workplace relationships. However, as we all know, love knows no bounds. Banning relationships in the workplace is not practical and ultimately, can lead to secrecy.

3. Allow it, subject to disclosure

This is the most practical step for employers. When employees make written disclosure to management about the relationships, there are no issues of secrecy and the matter can be dealt with openly. It is important in these situations to have a workplace policy regarding public displays of affection (or “PDAs”), to ensure other workers are made to feel comfortable in their own work environments. Moreover, it is important to ensure that the workplace does not become a forum to ventilate personal issues.

4. Allow it, but not within chain of authority

It is imperative to place management upon notice that relationships ‘down’ the chain of command are inappropriate in the workplace and not permitted. This is the most serious area of exposure to employers. From as high up as the White House, we have all seen many instances where issues of the heart can affect proper judgement and frustrate a meritocratic framework within a workplace.

 

For more information regarding employment and HR please contact Simon Abraham or a member of the Employment Law Team.

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