‘Bonk Bans’ and Managing Workplace Romance

Tanya Hunter
February 17, 2021
Tanya Hunter

Will you be my Valentine? Tanya Hunter speaks to managing workplace romance in the modern age.

Every year around this time, our thoughts turn to love. And the thorny questions of workplace relationships.

With the #MeToo movement continuing to highlight issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, some employers have been tempted to ban all workplace relationships. But can we really keep Cupid from targeting the workplace? Are “Bonk Bans”, to use the phrase coined for former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s parliamentary policy, really the solution?

We found love in a working place…

Workplace relationships in and of themselves are not the problem. After all, we spend a significant part of our waking hours at work, and we are often engaging with people with whom we share common goals, values and interests. Research shows that approximately 10% of people meet the person they marry at work. In fact, some surveys indicate that relationships that begin as work have a greater chance of success than those that begin on a blind date or a night out.  So, what’s the issue?

The big but

While shared work experiences and values might be a good foundation for a relationship, romance can cause headaches for employers.  Where there is a power imbalance between partners, a conflict can arise between a couple’s romantic life and their work life. While a person’s private life is generally just that, an employer will want to make sure that private relationships do not impact the professional work of an organisation. This desire to separate the private from the professional was no doubt behind the parliamentary “bonk ban”, and it seems like an easy rule. However it runs the risk of going too far. So how do we balance the tension between love and work?

What to do about love?

Employers can’t ban love from the workplace, but they can take steps to make sure that the course of employment, if not the course of true love, doth run smooth. A good policy addressing issues that can result from romantic or sexual relationships at work manages risk to the organisation without unreasonably prying into employee’s private lives.

Conflict of interest, real and perceived

Organisations need to make sure that an employee does not have a competing interest that can affect their ability to impartially perform their role. This is especially important where a manager is romantically involved with a person who reports to them or has some other form of control over their partner’s employment.  Even if a workplace romance does not actually affect an employee’s ability to perform their role with impartiality, others in the workplace, and the general public, need to see that there is not suggestion of a conflict, such as can arise when an important or well-known personality within an organisation embarks on a relationship with another employee.

Sexual Harassment

An employer needs to ensure that the workplace is free from sexual harassment for all employees. This includes making sure that there workplace atmosphere is not sexualised or hostile towards any employees.

Organisational morale

Although workplace romance can lift the spirits and perhaps lead to greater harmony across teams, Employers need to consider the impact that workplace relationships can have on teams. Those workplace romances that lead towards marriage might boost morale, but an unpleasant break-up may cause tensions and potentially divide a team.

What Workplace Relationship Policies does my organisation need?

The two key policies necessary to manage the risks around workplace romance are:

  1. Sexual Harassment Policy

It is important to have a clear policy against sexual harassment that provides a definition of what sexual harassment is, that is unwelcome sexual conduct which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstances. The policy should also state what sexual harassment is not – sexual interaction, flirtation, attraction or friendship which is invited, mutual, consensual or reciprocated.

It is important to tailor your sexual harassment policy to use examples that are relevant to your workplace. It may be appropriate to state that consensual relationships can and do form between co-workers and set expectations around workplace behaviour in these cases. Outright banning of relationships between employees is almost never appropriate. Besides being difficult to enforce, it is unlawful in some states to discriminate against an employee because of “lawful sexual activity” which includes sexual relationships between employees.

Your sexual harassment policy must state that the organisation does not support comments or actions which may create an unpleasant sexualized environment, even where parties consent to the actions. The policy should require that interactions between all employees at work remain professional. For example, employees in a relationship should not kiss or touch each other in an unprofessional way at work because it may make others in the team uncomfortable.

  • Disclosure of Employee Relationships Policy

Employers can approach the disclosure of employee relationships in two ways:

  • A policy which requires all employees to disclose sexual, romantic or other close relationships with other employees; or
  • A policy which encourages employees to disclose sexual, romantic or other close relationships where they think there is a conflict of interest, or where there might be a perception of a conflict of interest.

Often the best way forward is to combine these two approaches. The more senior an employee is, the greater the expectation to report all sexual, romantic or other close relationships with other employees. Generally the more senior an employee, the more likely they involved in decisions that affect the other employee in the relationship, and the greater the likelihood of perceptions of conflict of interest.

The disclosure policy should ask employees to outline any conflict of interest (or perceived conflict of interest) that the relationship between the two employees may cause and their plan for mitigating the conflict.

Managing disclosed information on relationships

Employers must be sensitive to the highly confidential nature of the information requested. It is sensible for one or two senior people with HR responsibility to manage the register of relationships.

These managers should review the mitigation plan for any real or perceived conflict of interest and (if they agree with the plan) assist to implement the plan as confidentially as possible.

Employers must treat any information received as part of the register as highly confidential. Employees will not disclose personal information if they do not trust it will be treated respectfully.

While banning workplace romance is unnecessarily harsh and ultimately unworkable, taking steps to ensure that workplace romances can be a part of a positive and professional workplace is a smart way to mitigate any risks that might arise from love at first sight.

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