Inter-workplace relationships are a common occurrence, but how should HR react if a romance forms between a team leader and their junior?
Warning: this story mentions instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Eight years ago my friend Tina sat down next to a quiet colleague named Alex. The two got chatting and things rapidly developed from a friendly co-worker relationship to something more. This weekend, they’ll be tying the knot at an intimate (COVID-safe) wedding.
Love in the workplace is not uncommon. According to the ABC’s Australia Talks Survey, meeting at work was the third most common way Australians met their partners.
When employees are spending upwards of eight hours a day together it’s not a surprise that romantic feelings begin to blossom. But when there is the possibility of the relationship impacting work, HR must become a third wheel to make sure all parties are safe.
“HR really comes in two places, one ensuring a safe place to work, by preventing sexual harassment. And the second one is understanding if there’s a conflict of interest by virtue of people’s relationships both inside and outside the company but particularly inside the organisation,” says AHRI’s general manager of people and culture, Rosemary Guyatt FCPHR.
Where workplace relationships can become a problem is when they form between a subordinate and their manager, an occurrence that isn’t all that uncommon either. A 2020 US study by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 27 per cent of respondents had a workplace romance. Of that, 27 per cent said it was with a boss or higher up and 20 per cent said it was with a subordinate.
Our power to change the world. Creating truth telling culture is the first step to creating psychologically safe workplaces for women. Find out how AHRI plans to promote the truth this International Women’s Day.
Dating a direct report
Guyatt says HR does have a role to play if the relationship is between an employee and their direct supervisor, or upline manager as the potential for sexual harassment and conflict of interest increase in these instances, due to the power imbalance.
“It’s really important your sexual harassment policy is well understood,” says Guyatt.
“This isn’t something that should only be mentioned at induction, but every year you should be refreshing your teams on what the policy is and what it means.”
In an ideal world, any relationship in the workplace should be declared if it is between a manager and subordinate. HR and leadership should find a way to ensure the junior employee is not directly reporting to their romantic partner (or vice versa).
Even when taking these precautions, Guyatt says some workplaces fall into the trap of essentially punishing the junior employee for the relationship, a trap Michael Byrnes, partner at Swaab, says can stray into legal issues.
He says when changes to reporting lines are made, “such changes, cannot be punitive; they need to be specifically directed at managing the issue of conflict of interest.”
Impact on coworkers
When a relationship forms there might be a desire among the parties involved to keep it a secret but Guyatt says that can cause more harm to those who have to work with and around those involved in a relationship.
“There is a potential for it to negatively team dynamics. There could be cases of favouritism or the behaviour they’re displaying could be too intimate for the workplaces. In those instances, employees should feel comfortable raising the issue with HR or whatever your internal complaint systems are,” says Guyatt.
While this can stray into the issue of employee privacy – particularly in the early days of a relationship – Guyatt says HR can actually be an assistance to the couple prevent any potential gossip or conflict from other employees.
Byrnes also says it’s not an employer’s job to judge the relationship. It doesn’t matter whether or not they agree with the relationship – this becomes particularly apparent if it’s extramarital.
“It’s not about morality, it’s about the conflict. Any disclosure made, whether the parties are married or not, should be treated in confidence and only revealed to those with a genuine need to know in the organisation,” says Byrnes.
An effective office romance policy
To avoid the messiness of workplace romances employers might be tempted to ban them outright. However, from a legal standpoint that’s not possible.
“An employer can only require employees to comply with ‘lawful and reasonable’ directions,” says Byrnes.
“It would almost certainly go well beyond the scope of an employer’s prerogative to purport to prohibit employees having a relationship, constituting an unjustifiable incursion into the private lives of those employees.
“You can’t ban relationships at work, the reality is many people meet their future partners at work. Where HR can step in is if there is a potential for a conflict of interest,” says Guyatt.
“Employers can make a policy that if there is a potential for conflict of interest that situation cannot remain. So if you say, “people in a relationship can’t report directly to their partner” then, from a policy perspective, that would be quite appropriate.”
Where things can get tricky is often around the start and end of a relationship.
Byrnes says there is no legal prohibition on stopping colleagues from asking each other out on a date but, obviously, there does need to be some consideration around straying into sexual harassment territory.
“Depending on the way it is framed such an invitation could be unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature and constitute sexual harassment,” says Byrnes.
“Unless the employee is certain of an affirmative response, or that the question is not going to cause offence, which is an essential element of sexual harassment, then it could be unwise.”
At the other end is dealing with the fallout if a relationship doesn’t work out.
“If the relationship was between an employee and their boss it would be very unusual for that situation to remain viable post-breakup. In many instances, it will end up with someone leaving, and unfortunately it’s typically the more junior person,” says Guyatt.
“It might sound very conservative but I do think people should exercise caution around building a romantic relationship at work because, unfortunately, more relationships break up than continue.”