Personal relationships in the workplace

The recent crackdown by the Federal Government on sexual relations among parliamentarians and their staff has generated public conversation about the limits employers can and should place on workplace relationships.

What are the risks?

The general consensus among most professions is that it is not appropriate to simply ban romantic interactions among co-workers, and not possible to enforce in practice. However, the legal risks to employers and individuals are too great to simply ignore the issue. The public appetite for stories concerning sexual relationships and scandal makes the negative PR implications particularly potent if things go awry.

The most fraught scenario is where a manager becomes involved with a subordinate. Inherent power-imbalances, combined with the potential for favouritism (actual and perceived) and the spectre of sexual harassment or bullying claims, form the basis for legitimate concern.

These problems can present themselves within the broader context of a potential conflict of interest situation, whereby an employee is (or may be) compromised in the discharge of their employment duties because of a personal entanglement.

The Fair Work Commission has even held that non-disclosure of an office relationship can be a valid reason for dismissal, if the relationship in question has a significant potential to impact upon the ability of workers to discharge their role.

What can be done?

Employers should consider:

  1. introducing or updating policies that deal with conflicts, and which require the disclosure of office relationships within defined circumstances appropriate to the nature of the workplace;
  2. spelling out the potential disciplinary consequences of a failure to disclose a relationship or otherwise contravening such a policy; and
  3. implementing a procedure which allows for proactive management of conflicts, including changes to working arrangements (e.g. reporting lines) to manage potential issues.

For more information on policies and procedures around workplace relationships, please contact our Employment, Safety and Migration team.

This article was written by Barney Adams, Lawyer – Employment, Safety and Migration.