Their eyes locked. They moved towards each other in unison, across the dreary plaid carpet floor. They shook hands, the touch sending mutual sparks of electricity coursing through their bodies. The handshake over, he leaned in, as if to softly whisper in her ear. "My goodness", she thought, "is he finally about to say those three little words to me?" Quietly, deliberately, he told her what he'd been waiting for so long to get off his chest: "Let's tell HR…"
So what should you do if Mr Mills and Ms Boon enter your office, eyes aflutter and hearts pounding, eager to tell all about their romantic pairing? Does this situation contain fifty shades of grey, or should all such dalliances be considered dangerous liaisons? Worse, what if you were to discover that a would-be Romeo and Juliet have been canoodling on the down low without telling anyone?
While there is nothing wrong or unlawful about a consensual workplace relationship, engaging in one may give rise to a perceived or actual conflict of interest, as allegations of favouritism may ensue.
And it's not only your employees that you have to worry about — even the odd Chief Executive has discovered to their financial and reputational detriment that companies can take a very dim view of workplace relationships which are not properly disclosed. Not to mention the potential for the "nuclear option" to ensue if the relationship sours, as illustrated by the Amber Harrison - Seven West litigation.
As an employer, you need to be realistic and acknowledge that romantic relationships can and do develop in the workplace, so it's a good idea to put measures in place which outline your organisation's policy on workplace romances, along with requirements around disclosure and any resulting restrictions or expectations placed on employees and executives at all levels who find themselves in this situation.
This could include, for example:
- designing and implementing a robust conflict of interest policy and training staff on it, to ensure that individuals are not placing themselves in the difficult position of choosing between the interests of their employer and those of their beloved;
- implementing guidelines for avoiding any public displays of affection which might make others in the workplace uncomfortable;
- prohibiting supervisors from dating individuals who report to them; and
- mandating that a workplace relationship be disclosed by the relevant parties if it could potentially harm the interests of the business or other employees.
Has your business thought carefully about how it approaches the issue of workplace relationships? Rather than be once bitten, twice shy, it is far better that your business consider what requirements it wishes to put into place before tears are shed and hearts are broken!
This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online by Workplace Relations & Safety partner Aaron Goonrey and Lawyer Luke Scandrett. It was first published in HRM Online on 19 October 2016. The HRM Online version of this article is available here.