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Workplace romance in the spotlight after AFL resignations

By Kristin Ramsey18 Jul 2017

The alleged “forced” resignations of two senior AFL officials last week after disclosing affairs with coworkers has again sparked public debate about the legal issues and consequences surrounding workplace romances:

Statistics show that the number of office flings and longer term partnerships formed in the workplace continues to grow. This is the natural flow on from people spending more and more time at work and the increasing blur between our private and professional lives.

The impact of workplace relationships

Whilst many employees would expect their office dalliances to be private and of no business to their employer; the reality is that workplace romances can have a significant impact on the workplace and therefore employers have a legitimate basis for taking action to manage them.

Some researchers suggest that workplace romance can create a number of benefits for an organisation including higher morale, more energised staff and greater job satisfaction. However, evidence suggests that workplace romances (if not carefully managed) can have disastrous consequences for the individuals involved, the broader workforce and the business.  

In recent times I have been called upon to advise on a range of different issues arising from undisclosed workplace relationships including misuse of company resources, breach of confidentiality, conflict of interest, favouritism, fraud, covering up complaints, sexual harassment and bullying.

Acknowledge workplace relationships happen and have a process in place

More often than not, however, businesses haven’t put in place any rules or regulations regarding office romances and therefore find themselves scrambling about trying to deal with issues when things turn sour.

Whilst I certainly don’t recommend that businesses put in place policies which prohibit workplace relationships, businesses should, however, put in place policies which clearly require the disclosure of workplace relationships (however fleeting) where the relationship gives rise to (or has the potential to give rise to) a conflict of interest or the perception of a conflict of interest. This could include relationships with direct subordinates, job applicants or external service providers.

These policies do not need to be narrowly confined to “romantic” workplace relationships and can form part of the broader conflict of interest policies regulating close personal relationships (which can include close friends and family members) and other commercial interests.

Importantly these policies should not only create rules for disclosing certain relationships or interests, they should set out the steps that the business can (and may) take to manage any real or potential conflict such as changing reporting lines or in appropriate circumstances reassigning employees to other locations or departments. Employees also need to be warned about the consequences of not complying with the policy – such as potential disciplinary action.

Is disciplinary action warranted?

On the topic of disciplinary action, businesses do need to tread carefully when considering disciplinary action against an employee on the basis of a workplace relationship. Obviously, we don’t have the full picture in relation to the resignations of Simon Lethlean and Richard Simkiss, but a consensual “fling” with a co-worker would not of itself usually give rise to a valid reason for termination of employment.  A romantic liaison with a subordinate that was not disclosed to management in circumstances where there is a clearly articulated policy on this subject would be a different story, however.

It is important for businesses to remember that what an employee does in their own time is generally of no business to their employer. The only exception is where their otherwise private conduct intersects with their employment so as to significantly impact (or potentially significantly impact):

  • the reputation, profitability or viability of their employer;
  • order in the workplace;
  • their ability to effectively perform their role; or
  • work health or safety.

In these situations, an employer can legitimately seek to regulate the employee’s private conduct and take disciplinary action where the employee breaks the rules. Obviously, not all workplace relationships will satisfy this test, however.

If unsure, seek advice.

Businesses are encouraged to seek advice when considering taking disciplinary action in relation to a workplace relationship and to seek assistance in putting in place an appropriate workplace relationship or conflict of interest policy.

Please contact Kristin Ramsey, Practice Group Leader – Employment and Workplace Relations if you would like assistance in this area or to request a quote for a workplace relationships policy. 

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