Sexual harassment and relationships with harmful power imbalances should clearly be stamped out in the workplace – but what about consensual romances? Here’s how to create a healthy and effective workplace relationship policy.
The workplace culture of the Australian parliament has been under scrutiny for some time now, even before the most recent allegations of sexual violence in Parliament House.
A Four Corners episode last year aired claims of indecent actions by two ministers who had been in relationships with younger staffers. A few years prior, the Coalition implemented its so-called “bonk ban”, which forbade relationships between ministers and staff, in the hopes of curbing some of the cultural problems. It hasn’t proved particularly effective.
There’s a big difference between sexual harassment and consensual romance, of course, and the two shouldn’t be conflated. But the latter, even when both parties have agency, can still have consequences within a workplace – especially when power dynamics are uneven, or when a relationship ends.
According to the ABC’s 2019 Australia Talks survey, the number of partners meeting each other at work has declined in recent years as more people rely on apps and online dating. But the workplace is still a common source of romance. More than one in ten people reported meeting their current partner or spouse at work.
Having a policy on relationships enables organisations to get on the front foot – rather than reacting to a situation that’s gone pear shaped. But should you go as far as a blanket ban? Law firm Lander & Rogers doesn’t think so.
During a recent policy review, the organisation made one small tweak to its sexual harassment policy: mandating that employees must report knowledge of harassment, as HRM reported.
However, it also saw a need for another policy: one addressing consensual relationships. Julian Riekert, partner at Lander & Rogers, says many businesses are currently reassessing how to do things on this front.
“I think #MeToo has actually changed the whole framework and now people are looking at their businesses with a much more critical eye,” he says.
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But it’s still fairly rare to have a specific policy covering workplace relationships.
Riekert says his firm’s policy hinges on a simple principle: whether or not the relationship creates a conflict of interest.
“The policy makes it clear that you can have relationships with whomever you choose – and that’s none of our business, unless there is a conflict – or potential or perceived conflict – in which case, we will try and help you work out a solution that removes the conflict from the situation,” he says.
“In my experience, there are lots of policies dealing with commercial conflicts, particularly for senior people in the business, so, it’s nothing new.”
What should a workplace relationships policy cover?
Riekert says a policy should address “actual, potential or perceived” conflicts of interest arising from at-work relationships. And not just romantic relationships – it could also include family or financial relationships.
The policy should hammer out the reporting process – who is told and how. At Lander & Rogers, the relationship needs to be reported either to senior people managers or, for partners, the chief executive partner.
Riekert says the reported relationships should then be managed on a case-by-case basis.
“For example, if someone’s coming up for promotion, ensure the person in the relationship that has been reported is not on the promotions committee – or the selection committee for somebody applying for employment.”
“As soon as the intention was explained to people [at Lander & Rogers] – that it wasn’t an anti-relationship policy, it was an anti-conflict policy – people said, ‘Oh, no, that’s fine. I can understand that.'”
If it’s a romantic relationship between two people that work closely together, it may prompt a reshuffle, but only if there is evidence of conflict, says Riekert.
“If it would be impossible, or impracticable, for the two people to have a professional, respectful and arm’s length relationship, then there may be some rearrangement.”
The consequences if the policy is not followed should also be considered: “If you should have reported the relationship and don’t, it [could] be treated as a disciplinary issue,” says Riekert.
“But that’s not meant to have people turfed out of employment. It’s meant to help them deal with the conflict and minimise it or remove it altogether.”
Whether the reporting process involves HR or very senior people within the organisation, confidentiality is key.
“Employees need to be confident that it will be treated as confidential information and will be dealt with appropriately,” says Riekert.
Ensuring this information doesn’t leak out, if the people involved want to keep it confidential, is crucial. So too is a general culture of trust across the company.
“[Before developing this kind of policy] you probably need to do a bit of a cultural assessment in your organisation to see whether the trust levels are high enough for it to work.”
Endorsement needs to come from the top
“It really helps if the endorsement of the policy comes right from the top, as with sexual harassment policies,” says Riekert. “They work best if they are seen to be supported by very senior people in the business. There’s a trickle-down effect from there.”
Communicating it properly to staff when it’s introduced is also important.
“As soon as the intention was explained to people [at Lander & Rogers] – that it wasn’t an anti-relationship policy, it was an anti-conflict policy – people said, ‘Oh, no, that’s fine. I can understand that,’” says Riekert.
He says it has been well received by staff so far. A number of people have come forward to report relationships, and most were told they weren’t considered a conflict.
Most important, says Riekert, is to not overcook the policy.
“It doesn’t have to be a huge 400-page document with lots of complicated rules.”
He recommends making sure employees know the policy is not meant to be punitive. It’s also a good idea to include some “case study” examples of conflict and non-conflict scenarios, he says.
“It’s meant to flush out relationships that give rise to conflicts but in a very tactful, sensitive, and confidential way. It’s not to punish people or discourage relationships, but simply to make them issues that the business can deal with.”
Riekert offers the following examples to demonstrate an actual and potential conflict of interest regarding a workplace romance (these examples are included in Lander & Roger’s policy):
Actual conflict of interest
Sam is a partner at the firm who was divorced two years ago. He and Eloise, a third-year lawyer in his practice group, have had a consensual sexual relationship for two weeks and they are planning to live together in Sam’s apartment. This relationship is reportable because of the hierarchical relationship.
Potential conflict of interest
Angela (a senior associate) and Jane (a third-year lawyer in another practice group) have been in a personal relationship for two years. They have been very careful to avoid any discussion of matters which could result in inadvertent disclosure of client confidential information or a conflict of interest. Jane wants to apply for a newly advertised position in Angela’s practice group.
This relationship is reportable if Jane applies for the vacant position so as to avoid Angela being involved in the recruitment process or otherwise unfairly influencing the course of events in Jane’s favour.
How does your workplace approach workplace romances? Let us know in the comment section.