A furtive glance. A lingering smile. A stolen kiss. A workplace romance often starts out with palpitations and so much promise, and yet there are times when it is HR who is left to pick up the pieces when it all turns sour.
Every personal relationship is complicated. However, when a relationship arises between colleagues who work together, it carries potential for conflicts of interest that resonate beyond those directly involved. Decisions taken within the relationship may also affect the business. In the worst of cases, the fallout from a broken relationship can carry serious consequences, not just for the couple, but for everyone around them.
This is not to say that workplace relationships are doomed to failure, or are always a bad idea. There is nothing inherently wrong with a personal relationship developing at work, and it is possible to manage them in a way that is appropriate and mature. There can be benefits to the employees’ happiness and morale at work impacting favourably on their productivity. With that said, this article will consider the risks involved in workplace relationships when they aren’t conducted appropriately or maturely – and what HR can do to prevent problems from arising or how to manage the fallout from failed liaisons.
Romance hidden in plain sight
It’s extremely unlikely that a couple will be able to conceal their liaison from co-workers indefinitely, so honesty is the best policy. However, public displays of affection are not only unprofessional, but a sure way to make everyone in the office feel uncomfortable. This includes flirtatious emails, which the company has access to. If the lovey-dovey stuff is spilling over into office hours, it’s worth HR having a quiet word to keep things strictly business during the nine to five.
Mixing business with pleasure
Problems often begin when there is a blurring of the line between the individuals’ dealings with one another in both their personal and professional capacities, particularly where there is a power imbalance between the couple at work.
Effie Rakatzis had been employed by a Bakers Delight retail store in Ashfield for around 18 months when she and Robert Pleming, the owner of the store, began a relationship. They moved in together around four months later, but then the relationship began to disintegrate shortly afterwards. Effie took steps to distance herself from Robert. She moved out from his house and obtained a second job on the weekends to grant herself some financial independence. Robert then dismissed her from her job at Bakers Delight without notice, claiming that she had vacated her employment. Effie made an unfair dismissal claim which was ultimately successful, as the tribunal found that Robert had, in part, dismissed Effie because he was annoyed at her for ending their relationship.
Relationships between managers and their subordinates can often result in a manager improperly using their authority to pursue their paramour. George Mihalopoulos was a Westpac branch manager who, in February 2014, secretly began an affair with one of his direct reports, ‘Ms A’ (who was not named in the subsequent legal proceedings). During the course of their relationship, George went to considerable lengths to assist Ms A professionally, including helping her get a promotion. George’s other direct reports complained that he was not giving them as much time and attention as Ms A was receiving.
When confronted over the issue by his manager on two occasions, George lied and denied he was in a relationship with Ms A. When the truth eventually came out, Westpac dismissed George on the basis of him creating and failing to disclose a conflict of interest. George then made an unfair dismissal claim but Westpac’s actions were upheld by the Fair Work Commission as being justified in the circumstances.
The best way for businesses to prevent issues such as these from arising is to implement policies that prohibit conflicts of interest. These policies would make it clear that employees must not engage in any activity (including a personal relationship) in the workplace that will potentially harm the interests of the business and other employees. Such a policy may prohibit supervisors from dating individuals who report to them.
In a less heavy-handed approach, it is also possible for businesses to implement consensual workplace relationship policies that allow for relationships but stipulate boundaries and provide processes for co-workers to complain or express concerns.
Unwelcome attention from a work colleague can also get out of hand and turn into harassment. A case at Port Phillip Prison illustrates this. Alan Baker, an officer at the prison, was involved in a relationship with a co-worker, ‘Ms S’, who was not identified in the subsequent legal proceedings. Alan eventually ended the relationship by text message, much to the chagrin of Ms S who was keen for it to continue. Ms S then made repeated unwelcome advances to Alan to try and persuade him to re-establish their relationship, but each time was rebuffed. In response, she made several spurious complaints against Alan, including that he had allegedly used threatening and abusive language towards her – which led to his dismissal.
The Fair Work Commission found that Alan’s dismissal had been unfair, as Ms S’s complaints could not be substantiated based on the evidence that was available to the employer.
Lessons for business are to have anti-harassment policies in place, which make it clear to all employees that harassment of any kind is prohibited and will be treated seriously. The processes for making a complaint of harassment and then investigating it should be set out clearly. Employees should receive training in what constitutes harassment and the relevant grievance procedure.
Aaron Goonrey is a partner and Luke Scandrett is a lawyer in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the February 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Love Hurts’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.