Anne-Marie Orrock, who has since set up her own business, Corporate Canary HR Consulting, knows about the problems inherent in romance blossoming at work.
Having dealt with the fall-out from other people’s intimate workplace relationships, Orrock was then struck by cupid’s arrow herself.
She’s far from alone. In the 35 to 50 age group, 40 per cent of people have met their partner at work, according to Relationships Australia in 2011 – and it’s estimated that up to 80 per cent of employees have had some form of romantic relationship during their working lives.
In Orrock’s case, the relationship ran its course and eventually came to an end but not before it became office gossip. “Once it was on the grapevine, I didn’t want my CEO finding out that way, so I went straight to him and told him. He reacted well, thanked me and said he respected our privacy and knew that we were mature and responsible adults. We didn’t let it impact on our work.”
Mixing business and pleasure
Organisational psychologist Dr Peter Langford says, “Difficulties arise if there is any element of jealousy from others, a change in communication patterns or a sense of cliques forming as a result of the romantic relationship.”
Langford describes a case where a married employee began an affair with a work colleague.
“It was recognised by the boss who had told him that it wasn’t appropriate. The individuals continued to work together but it had a negative impact on their colleagues, who lost respect for them.”
Moving employees to other roles is an option, but Joe Murphy, director at Australian Business Lawyers, says companies need to be cautious.
“If certain steps are taken without the agreement of the individuals, it can result in allegations that they are being victimised. Likewise, if one of the couple has been moved and one hasn’t, then a company is open to allegations of favouritism. If there’s a gender issue as well, sex discrimination allegations may arise.”
Murphy says it’s not uncommon for one person of a former partnership to perceive that they are being treated adversely – or are actually treated adversely.
“It’s usually triggered by performance management, where an employee’s manager is on good terms with their ex-partner and they feel paranoid or suspicious about the motives of the manager,” he says.
It’s the souring of a relationship that is perhaps most destabilising for everyone.
“People’s attitudes to a relationship can quickly change,” comments Sophie Redmond, senior associate at Harmers Workplace Lawyers. “If a breakup leaves one party aggrieved, employers face a heightened risk of sexual harassment complaints.”
The Sex Discrimination Act was amended in June 2011 to expand the definition of sexual harassment to include the “possibility” of offence, humiliation or intimidation. Importantly, under state and federal legislation, an employer can be held vicariously liable for an employee’s behaviour that occurs off-site during a work-related event, such as an office party or business trip.
In one example in the US, a 21-year-old male employee sued the company for sexual harassment after his more senior colleague, a 23-year-old woman, gave him a lift back from an office party in her car and then attempted to kiss him.
The risk response in the US has been to introduce workplace policies that range from blanket bans on dating to outlawing relationships that have a power imbalance. Increasingly popular in the US are the “love contracts” or “cupid contracts”.
These require employees to declare their relationship and abide by an agreement that it will not result in favouritism or interfere with their work. In the event of a breakup, both parties must agree not to take action against the employer.
Orrock came away from her office affair relatively unscathed but says, “If you asked me would I do it again, I would say probably not. Can you control whether you fall in love or not?” She considers … “I think you can walk away.”