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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Employment Today Magazine

LOVE IS IN THE AIR CONDITIONING

One in four office workers get romantically involved with a colleague at some point in their lives. Anthony Drake looks at the upsides and downsides of office romances and how they can be managed proactively.

OFFICE AFFAIRS ARE NOTHING new, and according to numerous surveys, they are more common than you might think. Apparently, one in four office workers get romantically involved with a colleague at some point in their lives.

Add to this the “silly season” and a cup or two of Christmas cheer can be the final tipping point for colleagues who have a little more in mind when it comes to the office Secret Santa.

Today, office-workers typically spend more time in the office than anywhere else. Add comparable interests, relaxed modern standards around dating colleagues, and work social events to the mix, and it is only natural that people find love at work.

However, an office affair can often turn out poorly for all concerned.

During the relationship

When office romance blossoms, it is inevitable the gossip mill will go into overdrive. This can be particularly damaging where there is a junior-supervisor element to the relationship and can lead to ill-feeling within the team, claims of preferential treatment, or conflicts of interest.

A power imbalance is very likely to lead to serious problems where one party to the relationship is in a position to influence the sub-ordinate employee’s employment. For example, promotion, salary increases, or approval of expense claims.

What if the relationship breaks down?

While an office affair in itself may not be problematic, especially where there is no power imbalance, issues may arise if (and when) the relationship breaks down. Common issues leading from the breakup of office romances are:

  • • 
    Allegations of sexual harassment;
  • • 
    Tension between the couple in the workplace which affects their performance and possibly wider staff performance;
  • • 
    Resignations.

Policies to mitigate the risk

It may be impracticable or undesirable to prohibit workplace relationships altogether. However, measures can be implemented to ensure employees are aware of their rights, responsibilities, and possible repercussions if things go south.

A workplace policy is an ideal method of communicating to staff the employer’s expectations in relation to relationships between staff. The policy may include:

  • • 
    The employer’s view on workplace relationships;
  • • 
    Prohibited types of relationships, if any (for example, perhaps between managers and direct reports);
  • • 
    Behaviour considered inappropriate;
  • • 
    What constitutes sexual harassment and discrimination;
  • • 
    Support available;
  • • 
    The consequences of breaching the policy.

Love contracts—the USA approach

“Love contracts” are becoming increasingly popular in the USA. Essentially, when employees enter the workplace they are required to sign a contract which sets out what will happen if they enters into a relationship with a colleague. Some love contracts will acknowledge that the relationship is consensual and set out the ground rules and consequences of breaking the contract.

A love contract, or even a workplace policy, may not be appropriate for your workplace, in which case there are a number of more informal measures that can be adopted:

  • • 
    Educating employees on your expectations and on issues of sexual harassment and discrimination;
  • • 
    Leading by example;
  • • 
    Informally monitoring relationships so that appropriate action can be taken if required;
  • • 
    Having an approachable contact/support person who can provide support or counseling if required.

Will this happen here in New Zealand?

We are not naïve enough to believe office affairs don’t happen here. We also need to recognise that employers have a responsibility to manage their workplaces. With that in mind, the use of love contracts is not so far-fetched.

If managed proactively and appropriately, workplace relationships can benefit both employees and the business. The key is to have a plan in place to manage the situation if it turns sour.

Anthony Drake is a partner and employment law specialist at Kensington Swan. Visit: www.kensingtonswan.com

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