This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on Friday, 5 May 2017.
The old adage that you shouldn't fish off the company wharf has been proven to be true for at least two high profile executives of late. While this is not a new or novel issue, it does beg the question of what role should a board or senior executive team play in the personal lives of employees and in particular, very senior employees?
The saga of Seven West CEO Tim Worner and his relationship with his secretary Amber Harrison, continues in court.
It was perhaps unrealistic to expect that Mr Worner would have disclosed his relationship with Ms Harrison when it was going on but once it ended the question is whether or not he did anything wrong from an employment perspective, in having the relationship in the first place? In the absence of any allegation of sexual harassment or other unlawful conduct, the issue for Seven West is very clearly the legal questions now being argued in relation to Ms Harrison's employment and of course, any reputational fallout from the scandal.
Relationships at work have always and will always occur. There is no presumption that behaviour between two consenting adults is wrong simply because conceived in a workplace setting but there is no doubt that it can lead to troubling legal and ethical questions for boards and management.
When it was reported recently that the CEO of QBE had $500,000 shaved off his bonus for failing to promptly disclose a romantic relationship with his executive assistant, the decision of the board had many observers scratching their heads. QBE had a good year and had delivered strong year end results. The issue was not the propriety or otherwise of his relationship but the failure to promptly disclose a matter which may cause a conflict of interest as required by the company's Code of Conduct.
That such a deeply personal matter could result in a real or perceived conflict of interest is no doubt an issue which could be the subject of debate, however, a workplace culture in today's corporate environment requires strict adherence to Codes of Conduct and accepted standards of ethical conduct. The question of what to do once such a relationship is disclosed is a far more difficult issue to resolve and will depend entirely on the case: whether any potential conflict can be managed, the relative seniority of the protagonists etc.
So, is there actually anything that can be done to reduce the impact of these scandals which are not only deeply embarrassing for the employer but must be mortifying for those personally involved? Accepting as a given that employers will never be able to abolish love (or indeed just lust) from the workplace, boards and senior management do need to ensure that the correct guidelines are in place which can assist in creating a culture of disclosure and respect.
Firstly, most companies have a Code of Conduct and those that don't, need one. Now. The language in these documents needs to be broad enough to require the disclosure of personal relationships where they have a real or perceived conflict of interest with the company. Employees need to be trained to understand precisely what a conflict or perceived conflict may look like and that training must include personal relationships. Many Codes of Conduct will direct employees to ask themselves simple questions like "would I want to read about what I'm doing on the front page of the newspaper?". If the answer is no, then they shouldn't be doing it at work or connected with work.
The other approach which is becoming more common is to implement a policy dealing specifically with workplace relationships. This is somewhat of an anathema to Australian workplace culture and reasonably rare in comparison to other countries such as the US. This type of policy can be more specific and prohibit relationships particularly between managers and subordinates. For me, this form of policy is perhaps a step too far and rather than promote a culture of respect and the exercise of good judgment, it tends toward the draconian in most, but not all, workplaces. A well-developed Code of Conduct with clear expectations of staff is a better means of formalising expectations with regard to personal decisions and discretions.
The problem with workplace romance is that it doesn't always end well. Sensible management policies need to be in place both to give those who live happily ever after the space and respect to maintain their professionalism and to limit the fallout for those relationships that go pear shaped in a very public way.