As surely as the sun will rise each day, employees will form personal relationships with co-workers. Some employers frown on such relationships and attempt to take preventative steps. The degree to which the employer can lawfully intervene to restrict such relationships, however, is limited.
It amazes me when an employer seeks advice on how to eliminate personal relationships between employees. The reality is that as adults many of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work. And, once our school days have ended, the workplace becomes our primary venue for social interaction.
Surveys indicate that over one half of employees have been romantically involved with a co-worker and almost one fifth of employees met their spouse at work. Despite what some employers would like to believe, the workplace is where a significant portion of employees’ lives play out. It is not a sterile laboratory outside which our real lives are suspended for eight hours each day. So, why would anyone be surprised that, in such a close and interactive environment, personal relationships will form, flourish, and disintegrate?
I believe that what most employers are trying to prevent is the negative (and inevitable?) fallout of such relationships. This is perhaps a laudable goal but likely one which will prove futile. An employer seeking to prevent personal relationships between employees will usually only succeed in forcing them to be carried on in secrecy.
Generally speaking, there is neither a law nor any sort of moral authority giving employers the right to restrict employees’ personal lives. If the employer nonetheless embarks on a campaign to stamp out work relationships, it will likely find itself the subject of a variety of complaints and actions. These could, for example, take the form of a human rights complaint or a civil claim of constructive dismissal.
There are circumstances, however, when an employer can lawfully impose restrictions on office romance. It would, for instance, be perfectly acceptable for an employer to take disciplinary action when the activities of present or former couples cross over into misconduct. This may be especially noticeable in the event of a breakdown in the relationship (when residual hostilities tend to manifest themselves in ways which are destructive to workplace harmony).
The most obvious, and important, role for employers is governing relationships between supervisors and subordinates. It is well established that the employer has a legitimate interest in knowing about, and taking reasonable steps to control, these relationships.
The key factor in regard to supervisor-subordinate romances is the existence of a power imbalance between the two. The prospect that the supervisor will abuse his or her authority in the course of the relationship, or will otherwise act contrary to the employer’s interests, is of greatest concern. And, the inevitable result, amongst the other employees, of a supervisor-subordinate relationship will be jealousy and allegations of favouritism.
Supervisor-subordinate relationships are, both politically and legally, a disaster waiting to happen. So what is the employer to do when such a situation blossoms? There are numerous steps the employer can take in anticipation of such a development.
Acting preventively the employer can (and should) establish a policy, guidelines, and training on appropriate workplace conduct. This should be a core component of the employer’s ongoing management training regimen and should comprise three primary elements.
First, the boundaries of appropriate workplace conduct should be defined in a policy. It is important that the policy provide examples of appropriate and inappropriate forms of conduct. Supervisors should be made to understand that they (not the subordinate) are ultimately responsible for ensuring their conduct does not cross into inappropriate territory. They should be educated on how such inappropriate conduct can, and likely will, form the basis for a complaint of harassment.
Second, ongoing attention should be given to the policy by way of periodic training sessions providing real life situations. This will provide supervisors and subordinates alike with situational experience of what is and is not appropriate workplace activity. The objective is to establish a broad awareness of the boundaries of acceptable conduct. Empowering the employees to recognize the early signs of such a situation will equip them to take evasive measures.
Third, supervisors and subordinates must be made to understand that the most important aspect from the employer’s perspective is early disclosure of potentially inappropriate situations. Disclosure will allow the employer to assess the situation before the damage has occurred and to implement mutually acceptable measures to resolve concerns of inappropriateness.
As with many aspects of the employment relationship, establishing conduct guidelines and taking early steps to deal with inappropriate situations is the best approach. For employers, the key is in knowing the limits of your ability to intervene in your employees’ personal activities.
These items are intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice. The legal issues addressed in these items are subject to changes in the applicable law. You should always seek competent legal advice concerning any specific issues affecting you or your business.