Office romances can be a headache for employers, leading to water cooler gossip, accusations of favouritism (especially if there is a love connection between people with a reporting relationship), and even the risk of a sexual harassment complaint. But managing the situation with proper policies and sensible management techniques can keep love in the air without negatively impacting your business.
Policies help set the ground rules:
Don't wait until after romance has bloomed before tackling this topic with your employees. Ensure that all team members are aware of your expectations for acceptable behaviour, along with what types of behaviour would be considered harassment, by having clearly written employee policies. Clear Path's Anna Aceto-Guerin shares:
"Written policies send the message that employees should not let romantic relationships affect the professional work environment. They will also clearly define what type of behaviour is inappropriate and what they should do about it if they are being harassed."
Anna Aceto-Guerin, CHRL
Senior HR consultant Margaret Sullivan Williams adds that managers have the right to demand productivity from their workers, regardless of their romantic situation:
"When a relationship distracts from the workplace's goals and undermines the effectiveness of the involved employees, it has gone too far. Managers need to sit down with both employees and clarify the expectations of the workplace with regards to romance. Or encourage them to get a room - after work!
Folks engaging in workplace romance should consider the potential for issues to arise both during and after dating. Even if they don't share a reporting relationship, things may sour and become quite complex during and post-relationship."
Margaret Sullivan Williams, CHRL
In 2010, the Ontario government expanded the Occupational Health & Safety Act with Bill 168 which placed explicit obligations for employers to protect employees from workplace violence and harassment. Failing to take concrete steps to prevent harassment, including sexual harassment, can leave employers to potential fines and charges.
In 2015, Kathleen Wynne's government launched a high profile campaign to raise awareness of sexual harassment and violence, called "It's Never Okay." In October, it introduced legislation that added additional obligations for employers, including the duty to ensure that any complaints are appropriately investigated.
Some workplaces have debated restricting office relationships. However, the reality is that this would likely drive any employee relationships "underground" and not shield you from potential issues.
Your best precaution is to require those involved to disclose that they have entered into a consensual romantic relationship to management. This allows for confirmation that the relationship truly is consensual and offers the opportunity to inform the two parties of your workplace harassment/sexual harassment policies, how to report complaints and most importantly expectations around conduct while in the workplace environment.
Clear Path's Michelle Strassburger explains:
"It's all about disclosure. Office romances don't always cause a conflict. However, ensuring that a reporting relationship does not exist is paramount to guarding against potential complaints of preferential treatment or sexual harassment."
Michelle Strassburger, CHRL
Avoid the legal ramifications often associated with workplace relationships by planning ahead and providing your employees with guidelines and education on the topic of office romance in your workplace before Cupid’s arrow strikes.
Looking for advice on how to handle an employee situation or how to establish HR policies for your workplace? Contact us today.