What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Dealing with Romances in the Workplace

Has the #metoo era dimmed the enthusiasm of workers for workplace romance? When writing this article, Tina Turner’s words are echoing in my head. The #metoo movement has now brought to light the dangers of workplace relationships and therefore it is an opportune time to take a look at office romances (and break-ups) and the steps employers should take to ensure they don’t get caught up in the #metoo turmoil.

In an age of where online dating is becoming more accepted and more common, it might be surprising to learn that meeting a partner in the workplace is still one of the most common ways to find romance and potential partners. In a 2018 survey by careers website vault.com, 52% of workers surveyed reported having had some romantic involvement with another employee. More than 50% of those relationships were described as more serious than just a “random hook up or random date”.

Whilst workplace romance remains common, the question has to be asked Has the #metoo era caused employee’s to re-think or totally avoid workplace romances?’. Interestingly, but probably not surprisingly, the data seems to suggest that this is the case, with more than a quarter of the respondents in that survey reported that #metoo era allegations of sexual harassment against prominent people have made them less likely to think that romantic relationships between colleagues are acceptable.

One of the important challenges for employers is ensuring that the line between mutual and consensual interactions and sexual harassment is absolutely patently clear; because there can no longer be any blurring of the lines.

What do employers need to do to help their employees stay on the right side of that line and in turn reduce the business’s exposure to litigation? Here are the keys:

1.         Employers and staff need to understand sexual harassment. In essence, sexual harassment is “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated”. This can take the form of unwanted and persistent requests to go on dates, suggestive humour and banter, through to repeated and unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sex. The test is whether a ‘reasonable person’ would have anticipated the possibility that conduct would offend, humiliate or intimidate the other person.

2.         Take ‘Reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment. Sexual harassment is prohibited under  the various Commonwealth and State discrimination legislation, and employers can be held vicariously liable for the behaviour of their employees. The mitigating  defences to a claim of vicarious liability are to have taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent the harassment. Those reasonable steps are (but are not limited to):

(a)       Having clear policies in place that deal with harassment and discrimination, setting out clearly what sorts of behaviours are prohibited, complaints procedures and the consequences for discrimination and harassment.

(b)      Consider implementing an ‘office romance’ policy or include this issue as part of a code of conduct. Having clear guidelines around appropriate workplace behaviour will assist in managing situations that turn to romance or indeed if the romance turns sour.

(c)       Ensure employee education, familiarity and compliance with these policies. This includes training, and monitoring and active management in the workplace. If there is a complaint, employers should take immediate and appropriate action consistent with relevant policies. This may include appointing an external investigator, especially if the alleged perpetrator is part of senior management.

By following these steps, employers will be best placed to ensure the only inconvenience associated with workplace romance is the glint in the eye of the employees and the never-ending succession of flower deliveries.

If you would like further information and guidance in relation to this article, please do not hesitate to contact us at Effective Workplace Solutions.

By Greg Arnold

Director and Principal Consultant

Effective Workplace Solutions