Like it or not, inter-office relationships are likely here to stay. AHRI Chairman Peter Wilson has some advice for employers about how to best handle them.
By now the dust has just about settled on the affair between former deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, and his former media adviser, Vikki Campion. In what was a daily headline story over a number of weeks as the rest of us lazed on a beach or were returning to work, the deputy PM insisted on telling us the affair was none of our business, while the PM sprang into a pointed assessment of the affair as a “world of woe” – followed by an official statement banning ministers of the Commonwealth from engaging in sexual relationships with their staff. The penalty for a breach being instant dismissal from the ministry.
A few days later a charm offensive broke out from both sides with a call for heels to be cooled and numbers to be counted before parliament resumed. Both individuals are experienced negotiators, albeit from different schools of negotiation, and so the stoush guaranteed that little governing would be done as public and media interest in the matter persisted until it died of fatigue or the deputy PM resigned, which eventually happened.
Public or private?
Aside from the media attention, this incident is a reminder of what HR professionals and business leaders regularly deal with in workplaces across the country: the conflict between private life and workplace duty.
Dealing with these issues has required acknowledgement of their impact on the workplace and a requirement for supportive policy from leaders of the organisation that focuses on examining the source of the problem rather than succumbing to the temptation to sweep it under the carpet or some similarly ostrich-like response.
Are there lessons to be learnt from the stand-off between our prime minister and his then deputy about how to better manage affairs in the workplace when they occur?
The prime minister declared that the ban on sexual relationships between ministers and their staff was to align with contemporary standards in business. In summary, modern corporations place obligations on individuals holding senior leadership positions to act ethically, honestly and in good faith; to uphold the values of the organisation; to provide a fit, proper and safe workplace for the conduct of work; to protect the rights of all employees; and to act in a way consistent with modern community values.
No unilateral ban on consensual sex, or anything resembling it, sits there.
The evidence is that sexual relationships between co-workers are common. Relationships Australia has stated that around 40 per cent of long-term relationships develop between co-workers. At a US Families and Work Institute conference I attended in 2013, the figure of 47 per cent was proposed to indicate the proportion of co-workers who have at least one intimate sexual relationship with another co-worker during their career.
Into this broadly comparable set of statistics can be read the existence of short-term workplace relationships and affairs that often end abruptly because some breach or infringement of third-party rights is detected after the affair is outed.
Circumstances of that order drive a three-part principled response by better contemporary employers. The first is that co-workers who find themselves in an intimate relationship are strongly encouraged to declare it to an independent party at their workplace. If they don’t, it’s inevitable they will be outed by their colleagues in response to body language and other giveaway signs.
The second principle is for an independent person at the workplace to ensure that the relationship does not lead to a conflict of interest, or infringe the rights of third-party workers, or improperly use the organisation’s resources. If both principles of declaration and independent checks are invoked, the relationship generally continues with goodwill from others in the workplace.
A third principle that applies in some organisations, especially US subsidiaries, can require workers to sign a waiver which removes the employer from legal responsibility. This protects the organisation when, say, a relationship sours and one or both co-workers attempt to sue the company for facilitating the relationship.
Malcolm Turnbull’s sex ban is in reality less of a ban and more of a consequence predictor: you can retain your ministerial portfolio or your affair with a staffer, but not both, the PM appears to be saying. Whatever he says, the new rule will not stop sexual relationships developing between ministers and staff. Like Prohibition, it will force the activity underground and ensure the participants work harder to cover their tracks, so the sex police will have to work even harder to track them down.
Hopefully, a more sensible solution will emerge that might also enable the ministerial code of conduct to command respect and operate properly. When that happens, the sex police can get back to real police work.