Valentine’s Day always brings a heightened focus on romance and, for employers, it’s a reminder that love isn’t just in the air — it’s in the office too.
That can pose a host of challenges for employers and HR departments with a potent mix of issues around privacy, professionalism, and conflicts of interest. And while banning office romances might seem like the easy route, it’s neither practical nor legally enforceable, according to Melanie Samuels, a Vancouver-based partner at Singleton Reynolds.
“The law doesn’t say that people can’t meet at the office or have office romances,” she said.
But there are some circumstances where employers should get involved, particularly in managing conflicts of interest if the staff are in the same department or if it involves a subordinate-supervisor type relationship, said Samuels.
“If there’s a reporting relationship, that’s something the employer needs to be aware of — and then can manage accordingly,” she said. For example, the people involved could be moved to different departments and the company can ensure their performance isn’t being reviewed by someone they’re dating.
Having a policy on workplace relationships is fair game, and employers can ask staff to share the fact they’re in a relationship, said Samuels.
The emphasis should be on transparency and reporting, allowing the employer to take appropriate steps to manage the relationship in a way that protects both the company and its employees.
“Rather than saying you can’t have a relationship, it’s better to say that if you have one, you need to let us know and we’ll see if we can manage it,” she said.
“The message is we don’t want to be involved in your personal life.”
One tactic to consider is to meet with the two workers separately to ensure everything is truly consensual, and then work with them together to come up with a solution that avoids perceptions of unfairness in the workplace.
It’s not always possible to move people out of departments, particularly if the organization is a small one. And the employer also needs to be careful about who it’s moving around — “it can’t be based on a sexist agenda,” she said.
“The employer has to do a thorough assessment of how they’re going to make sure it’s avoiding a conflict of interest,” said Samuels. “And that’s not necessarily a direct one, but a perceived conflict of interest where other employee see favouritism.”
Risks to employers
One of the biggest risks for employers is that, when the relationship goes sideways, one person might claim sexual harassment, she said.
“If it was a superior or somebody you report to, then you may feel like you had to go along with the relationship,” said Samuels. “It might look consensual, but sometimes the person might feel they were scared to say no or felt like they had no choice but to be in the relationship.”
Employer liability can come into play if there is a human rights complaint or a constructive dismissal case, not to mention the publicity that can come into play, said Samuels.
A 1993 human rights ruling out of B.C., Dupuis v. British Columbia (Ministry of Forests), highlights some of the risks for employers. It centred around consent, and involved a PhD student and her professor who went on a field trip that required overnight stays. The professor rented one room and they ended up sleeping together.
“She’s a young girl and she’s with an older professor, and she’s too afraid to say anything,” said Samuels. “They have a sexual relationship. They hold hands at breakfast. And three days later, they come back to town and she reports it.”
The PhD student felt totally intimidated and that her academic work might be in jeopardy if she didn’t go along with it, she said. In the end, the student was awarded $5,000 in general damages for distress and nearly $15,000 for lost wages — because the harassment was a major contributing factor in the late completion of her thesis.
“It’s a lesson to be careful. You may think they want to go out for dinner with you, but he or she may just be protecting their job,” said Samuels.