The court case between Seven West Media and Amber Harrison, who had an affair with the company’s chief executive Tim Worner, as well as the scandal engulfing the AFL, demonstrate the potential damage – both financial and reputational – that relationships between colleagues can have.
It is also not only problematic when a relationship breaks down, but even successful relationships between colleagues can present challenges and logistical problems for their employer.
The issue is even more fraught with danger for business owners if they themselves are one half of the couple.
Consider the following as just a few of the impacts that office romances can present to an employer throughout the life cycle of a relationship:
- Productivity: are colleagues going to continue working as productively and efficiently if they are distracting one another, or exchanging love letters by email?
- Appropriate behaviour: the obvious example of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace would be having sex at work, but there are many manifestations that may not be suitable for the work environment – such as flirting in front of customers.
- Favouritism: there is a risk of couples playing favourites at work. They could assign projects, bonuses or other benefits to their partner, or conversely actively avoid giving them benefits in a bid to not look like they are professionally affected by their personal relationship.
- Perceived unprofessionalism: the very professionalism of one or both parties may be called into question by other colleagues. This risk is particularly pronounced where one person is more senior than their partner, potentially even their direct manager.
- Sexism: cultural issues around workplace relationships mean that women, and to lesser extent men, may be portrayed as ‘sleeping their way to the top’ by other colleagues.
- Conflict between the couple: we all know as human beings that emotions can easily transfer from home to work, but this can be exponentially more problematic when those problems at home continue at work. This challenge amplifies when a couple separates and can no longer work effectively together.
- Conflict between the couple and other employees: Not everyone may be happy for the couple. For example, a same-sex couple could be the subject of homophobia, or a jealous colleague may seek to break up the couple. This opens the door to complaints of workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination.
- Sexual harassment: if a relationship or advances are unwanted, this is a case of sexual harassment, and warrants immediate action by an employer. Depending on the seriousness, this may lead to dismissal of the offending party and even criminal charges.
- Unfair dismissal: letting go of one half of a couple could be grounds for unfair dismissal, and will also likely impact the productivity, performance and wellbeing of the remaining person.
- Rostering: at the simpler end of the spectrum, employers may need to juggle extra logistical issues when you have not one, but two employees seeking time off simultaneously, such as wanting to take parental leave or caring for a sick child.
The point here is that while relationships are fundamentally private matters, when they are between colleagues – or involve yourself as the owner of a business – they become your legal responsibility to manage as the employer.
But this responsibility is far from clear-cut: it can be a real nightmare to determine where the line sits between employer’s responsibility and employee’s right to privacy.
As such, it is wise to seek external advice before you act, and devise strategies in advance to help cope with difficulties should they arise.