Feb 15

Office romance isn’t always roses on Valentine’s Day

With the amount of time we all spend at work, it is little wonder that many of us find love in the workplace. When love runs smoothly there is no problem, however when a workplace romance turns toxic it can impact workplace dynamics and productivity and attract serious adverse publicity for the employees’ organisation.

A recent case in point has been the investigation into the conduct of Tim Worner, CEO of Channel 7 who admitted to having had an affair with a former colleague, Amber Harrison. Harrison was ‘managed out’ of the business in 2014, receiving a $100,000 payout and she was investigated for misuse of corporate credit cards. She claimed that Worner had also had affairs with four other women. Worner was exonerated by the investigator of any misconduct and has kept his job. Nevertheless, the matter has been costly for Channel Seven not only in a financial sense but in terms of the adverse publicity.

There are several strategies you can adopt to ensure your staff are clear about their rights and responsibilities when it comes to office romance that will also help minimise the fall-out if things go bad.

1. Disclosure

Employees are entitled to have relationships with one another – discrimination law protects legal sexual activity. However, employees who are having personal, romantic relationships may have an obligation to disclose that relationship, particularly in circumstances where it could give rise to a conflict of interest. For example, a senior employee dating a junior employee could give rise to a perceived conflict of interest in so far as the senior person might be seen to bestow favours or promotions or give the more junior person different opportunities to others.Employers should ensure that their workplace policies clearly spell out employee obligations in this regard and that employees have a clear and uncomplicated path for making such disclosures.

2. Communication

Many managers we speak to baulk at the prospect of discussing an employee’s personal relationship with another employee, taking the view that it is none of their business. However if a personal relationship between two individuals in the workplace is having an effect on others, or impacting productivity, then it most certainly is your business.

These conversations are difficult ones to have, but are important not only to set the boundaries and remind employees of appropriate workplace behaviour but also to ensure the wellbeing of those involved. Teaching managers how to talk about tough stuff is one of the most valuable tools you can give them.

3. Technology and romance

In the Channel 7 case, intimate text messages between the individuals involved made their way into the public domain. During investigations, we regularly review employees’ Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, text messages and emails and this is often very embarrassing for those involved.

Employees need to understand that using workplace technology such as work phones or laptops to conduct personal communications is inappropriate. Having a clear social media policy that addresses personal use is vital. Many of the policies we see only address employees’ use of social media on behalf of the company.

4. The workplace ‘tone’

The workplace culture or tone has a significant influence on the likelihood of problems arising. Behaviour such as carrying out practical jokes with a sexual overtone, sending emails with sexual content or tagging fellow employees on offensive Face book posts if ignored or condoned may set a tone of acceptance for inappropriate behaviour and create additional risk when relationships go bad.

In Renton v Bendigo Health Care Group [2016] FWC 9089 Mr Renton worked for Bendigo Health Care Group in a psychiatric ward for aged patients. In August 2016, he posted a lewd video on Facebook tagging two colleagues with the message ‘Frank Christie getting slammed by Jo Keown at work yesterday!’. The same day Mr Renton left blobs of sorbolene cream on Mr Christie’s desk. Mr Renton was dismissed by his employer. Whilst the dismissal was ultimately overturned as being disproportionate to the conduct, the Commissioner was damning of Mr Renton’s behaviour describing it as ‘crass, careless and showing an absence of judgment.’ He considered that reinstatement was inappropriate.

With all the troubles in the world, love is a positive and office romances will always be a fact of life. Where employees have a strong sense of what is appropriate conduct and that is reinforced by good policies, it is far less likely there will be trouble in paradise.

About Sarah Tidey

Sarah TideySarah Tidey has been a consultant with Worklogic for six years, with a focus on workplace investigations and reviews as well as training and policy development. Sarah gained a comprehensive understanding of risk management and people management from fifteen years’ experience in the legal and financial services sectors. Sarah applies strong analytical and communication skills in workplace investigations and training.

Worklogic offers a range of programs and in-house training to help organisations build a positive work culture and reduce workplace conflict. Please contact Sarah via email or give her a call on (03) 9981 6500 for a confidential discussion on strategies to improve the work/life balance at your work.

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