In 2018, media headlines across the country were awash with the news of the then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce having an affair with his former media adviser, who subsequently have birth to his child.
It exposed Mr Joyce and the government more broadly to accusations of impropriety, and led to an overhaul of rules governing personal relationships between politicians and staffers.
The case followed the #MeToo social media campaign against sexual harassment, largely focused on the workplace.
Then there have been occasions where an office affair has turned sour and ultimately led to legal action and/or claims of unfair dismissal, such as the high-profile case involving Seven West Media’s CEO Tim Worner in 2017 who had an affair with his former executive assistant Amber Harrison.
Of course, there are also instances where a married couple – either the business owners themselves or two employees – separate, allowing for personal tension and conflict to seep into the work environment.
And it is not unheard of for bullying to occur when news of a budding romance or fling between two colleagues breaks to those around them, or for complaints of favouritism to emerge against a manager in relation to a subordinate with whom they are intimately involved.
These examples demonstrate how, when it comes to relationships between employees, or with one of their workers, employers walk a very thin line and easily be caught up in an adverse situation.
As employment law specialist Geoff Baldwin, of Stacks Champion, previously wrote in My Business, the legal definition of a “close personal relationship” can encompass many things, including certain parties in the workplace.
He suggests that in order to protect yourself as the employer, the introduction of written policies around disclosure and a code of conduct can be a useful solution.
“It is a good idea to have a policy requiring employees to disclose any close personal relationships with other employees if they are, or are likely to be, in a supervisor/subordinate situation, or some other role in which one can make decisions materially affecting the other,” he said.
Of course, Mr Baldwin notes that privacy concerns also come into play when dealing with personal relationships. As an employer, it is important not to disclose personal information about one employee to another, regardless of whether they are in a relationship or even married.
“In ordinary day-to-day life, people unthinkingly talk to one member of a married or de facto couple about the other, on the assumption that both will be privy to each other’s details. But information such as rates of pay, attendance records, leave accruals, and a lot of other workplace information is ‘personal information’,” he said.
“So it is risky to disclose such information about one to the other.”