We’re all human and there are many people who are reading this e-bulletin right now that may have met their current partner/wife/husband at work; but as we have seen in the media recently – workplace relationships have been a big discussion topic.

How employees conduct themselves at work is at the root of many issues for employers and managers and while many jump straight to the conclusion that they must discipline their employees, the question that is often overlooked is ‘does the employee know that this kind of behaviour is inappropriate’?  In most cases the answer would likely be yes, but there are many other cases – workplace romantic relationships for instance that are a very grey area.

How many Workwise member businesses have proactively addressed this issue? We’re taking an educated guess that the number would be very low.

To put some perspective around the issue of office romances, here is a list of some of the problematic issues that workplaces face:

  • How to deal with behaviours of individuals whose relationship has broken down;
  • Fraudulent activities (collusion, cover-up, deflection, stealing);
  • Bullying/sexual harassment claims (particularly when one of the employees is in a more senior position than the other);
  • A down-ward slide in team morale and productivity;
  • Privacy breaches;
  • Confidentiality breaches;
  • Morality issues, particularly around overt romantic behaviours in the workplace;
  • Reputational effects

These are all potentially very serious risk concerns that should be acknowledged and while romantic relationships in the workplace are typically not spoken about, are taboo or are the subject of gossip and innuendo it’s certainly out in the open and in the media right now and it is a warning for all workplaces.

Surveys conducted overseas and in Australia indicate the prevalence of ‘office romances’ at around 40% of the survey group. In fact from 2008 to 2011 Relationships Australia conducted a survey that indicated 40% of 35-49 year old’s met their spouse at work.

For the purposes of this e-bulletin let’s take a look at the ways your business – in fact any business – can be confident that their employees know ‘the rules’.

The first way is ‘to communicate.

The second way is ‘refer to the first way’.

But before you can communicate ‘the rules’, you must have identified what the rules should be. For instance, what is classified as ‘good’ behaviour in your business and what is classified as ‘bad’ behaviour?  Aligning your employee’s performance, attitude and behaviours with those that you expect or desire starts with identifying your core values and expectations.  Once you have identified those you can then put the rules in place.

While there doesn’t appear to be much point in trying to ban employees from entering into workplace relationships (perhaps there are exceptions in some highly regulated organisations and businesses), ALL  employers certainly have a right to instigate some rules, guidelines and policies around the subject. The ramifications of romantic relationship breakdowns also should be considered. They are, are in most cases disruptive, however the degree of disruption can be minimised if employers take the time now to think about how best to tackle these issues if and when they arise.  Most businesses however are blissfully unaware that office romances are taking place, but not all members of staff are as blind.  Managers and supervisors should be watching for signals and red-flags as part of your workplace culture analysis on a regular basis and the identified individuals or behaviour should not be ignored. 

For instance – employers might consider including in their code of conduct policy a reminder to staff of the risk in engaging in romantic relationships with colleagues – specifically, the potential ramifications of workplace misconduct including disciplinary processes that may be invoked.

If in the case of a romance gone wrong, if it’s an option, consider offering the opportunity for any individual to take some annual leave or if you have an Employee Assistance Program in place let your employee know that they can access professional counselling.  If employers are experiencing such difficulties in your workplaces there are other options too like Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) processes. 

Remember though, there is always a requirement to address misconduct and poor behaviour. Vindictive behaviours, retaliatory attitudes and emotional or physical abuse/violence are all areas that must be addressed. 

This whole question surrounding workplace culture is being asked by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. Just prior to Christmas 2017 ASIC launched a report entitled “Managing Culture – A Good Practice Guide”.  The report was prepared and issued by key industry bodies including the Institute for Internal Auditors – Australia, The Ethics Centre, Governance Institute of Australia and Chartered Accounts Australia New Zealand, putting workplace culture squarely on the agenda for particularly larger organisations whose CEO’s and Directors may be called to account on poor workplace cultures. 

The  question for the rest of us is – are our workplace policies and risk minimisation processes currently up to the task?

Contact Workwise now for an appointment or to discuss your areas of concern or to find out more about the Alternative Dispute Resolution options available from Workwise.

The information contained in this article does not constitute and should not be relied upon as ‘legal advice’. Workwise recommends that legal advice be sought from a suitably qualified legal practitioner prior to any action being taken. Such advice may be accessed via Workwise.