What Employers Should Do When Dealing With Workplace Romances

Published July 23, 2020 (last updated July 15, 2022) -

Employers should encourage disclosure and handle workplace relationships on a case-by-case basis, according to Employsure, New Zealand’s largest workplace relations advisor.

Relationships in the workplace have become an especially timely issue, with employees and employers collectively asking are they acceptable, and what rules govern them.

Some have questioned whether an affair in the workplace is a sackable offence, but as Employsure Senior Employment Relations Advisor Ashlea Maley has identified, there are a number of factors that come into play.

“Sacking someone for having an inter-office affair is dependent on the circumstances, and whether or not those personal relationships are actually jeopardising the working environment”, said Ms Maley.

“One of the most fundamental things employers need to consider when dealing with this issue is whether or not that relationship is having a detrimental impact on the business. If an employee is in that situation with one of the decision makers at the company, it could lead to that employee, or their close colleagues being given opportunities unfairly over others.

“Other factors at play are the type of industry the affair is happening in, how many people work for the business, and what workplace policies are in place. When scandals do arise, it reiterates the need for employers to have and enforce those strong policies. Having clear procedures and guidelines on what is acceptable and what isn’t helps create better transparency.

“There is always the chance that two colleagues will form a personal relationship, whether it be romantic or not. What they need to realise however is there is a process for the employee to follow with management, before it becomes a possible issue.”

When asked if employers should make it clearer in their policies whether or not they tolerate romance between their employees, Ms Maley said sometimes it is inevitable.

“Employers can highlight the fact that a romance in the workplace can be a conflict of interest. What it should come down to is making sure favouritism or abuses of power are not tolerated, and that if there is a chance that a workplace relationship forms, that those employees are encouraged to inform management without fear of discipline.

“Employees shouldn’t feel the need to disclose personal connections if they are minor and have no impact on the company. However, if there is a real, or potential conflict of interest, employees should let management know. It may have an effect on the way they act in the work environment, even if they do not intend it.

“If leadership or an employer is notified, then it gives them a chance to look for alternative arrangements that would better benefit the business. Employers could see if that employee would work more effectively in another department, or assess other options before things possibly escalate out of control.

“What it really comes down to is whether or not there is a policy in place. Having an effective policy is key, but if not, employers should default back to standard employment law and do what they consider to be fair and reasonable. It may be necessary to touch base with those involved separately, get an idea of what’s going on, and then make a judgement call.

“It is a case-by-case process and it will depend on what position the employees are in. If it’s just two people that work in completely different departments, it’s going to be very different to someone possibly having an affair with their manager.”

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