When Workplace Relationships Go Wrong

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Given how much time employees spend at work every week, it is hardly surprising that romantic relationships develop in the workplace. 

But what happens when a romance is inappropriate, or attraction crosses the line into sexual harassment?

inappropriate vs unlawful

While there is nothing illegal about a workplace relationship between two consenting adults, in some circumstances it can be inappropriate, for example a romance between a manager and a subordinate. 

There is also a significant difference between mutual and enacted sexual attraction, and unlawful conduct such as unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment or even abuse or assault. Sexual harassment is unlawful under both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). Sexual abuse and/or assault is a criminal offence.

the issues and consequences

Workplace relationships can become problematic, particularly in situations where a relationship involves two employees, one of whom oversees the other's performance, management or appraisal. 

Other co-workers may feel aggrieved by a real or perceived bias involving any decisions made by the more senior worker involved in the relationship. Team morale can suffer if one member is seen to be treated more favourably than the rest when it comes to performance appraisals, the allocation of work and promotional opportunities. 

Partly for this reason, employers may be tempted to dismiss employees who have not disclosed the nature of their romantic relationships. The legality of any such dismissal is questionable - however, previous decisions of the Fair Work Commission have suggested that employees may be dismissed in cases where employees are untruthful when they are challenged about the existence of workplace relationships. 

Employees may also make unwanted advances to other employees, as a result of innocently misinterpreting signs of perceived sexual interest. While there's nothing wrong with a co-worker asking a colleague out on a date or making an advance, there is a problem if the 'advancer' fails to accept and move on from any rebuff. 

The potential for negative fallout when a relationship ends is also a key concern for most employers. This is particularly the case if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other party wants to move on - ongoing attention may tip over into sexual harassment. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is 'any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual'.

From an employer's perspective, if sexual misconduct occurs in the workplace (or at employer-sanctioned events such as Christmas parties or other functions) then the business may well be vicariously liable.

There is certainly potential for litigation or unwanted media attention and brand damage as a consequence of sexual misconduct or an inappropriate relationship.    

what can an employer do to minimise the fallout? 

From a risk mitigation perspective, employers should ensure that they have adequately drafted and communicated workplace policies.

At a minimum, these policies should include: 

  • Clear guidelines on the permissibility of relationships between co-workers and when such relationships should be disclosed; 
  • Procedures for what should happen when such a relationship is disclosed, for example when a change in reporting structure is required;
  • A clause addressing conflict of interest and perceived bias (especially when relationships occur between senior and junior staff);
  • A clause defining sexual misconduct, highlighting the definition of sexual harassment and what kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace. 
  • Workplace policies that promote awareness of all gender related issues, including sexual harassment. 

It is common for relationships and attractions to develop in the workplace. As an employer, it is important to ensure that these circumstances do not lead to incidents of sexual harassment or perceptions of conflict of interest. 

Employers should ensure that they address all complaints of sexual harassment with care. If you have had complaints regarding sexual harassment, or are concerned about potential bias, WISE provides full and supported investigation services

Managing Relationships in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Anyone who has been following the news recently will be aware that scandalous sexual relationships in the workplace have become something of a common theme. 

The stories of Seven West Chief Executive, Tim Worner and his former executive assistant (a relationship which ended in legal action), the forced resignations of senior AFL executives over their relationships with younger staff, and the notorious pregnancy of former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's staffer have all been highly publicised. 

The ironic fallout of Mr Joyce's relationship is the so-called "bonk ban", instituted by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That ban is intended to prevent all relationships between ministers and their staff, and presumably avoid another scenario such as Mr Joyce's extra-martial affair. 

But is this something which employers can actually impose? Particularly in circumstances where many romantic relationships are forged in the workplace?

can employer prohibit relationships in the workplace?

Although it is virtually unheard of for blanket bans on all relationships to be imposed in any workplace, it is not uncommon for disclosure policies to be introduced. 

The intention of such policies is to require staff members to disclose sexual relationships which could result in a conflict of interest, for example when the relationship is between a supervisor and their subordinate.

Such a code of conduct is designed to manage situations where the interests of the business may be in direct conflict with the romantic or personal interests of the employees. 

Actual conflicts of interest vs perceived conflict of interest

Arguably any relationship in the workplace - not necessarily even a romantic one - could lead to a conflict, particularly when the relationship falls apart or ends badly. This can result in staff feeling unable to work together or believing that they are being victimised by their former lover or friend. 

However, it is important to understand the difference between an actual conflict, and a perceived conflict. 

The Fair Work Commission's decision of Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation [2015] FWC 2087 illustrates the difference. In this case, a Westpac bank manager was dismissed from his role due to his conduct arising out of his relationship with one of the bank's employees. 

According to Westpac, Mr Mihalopoulos was dismissed because he was dishonest about his relationship with the worker, breached an apprehended violence order imposed by the worker (after the relationship ended) and inappropriately discussed details of their relationship with his subordinates. 

During the course of the hearing, Mr Mihalopoulos admitted that he had put forward his lover for promotions while they were in a relationship, despite denying their relationship to superiors. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined that employers were entitled to expect that their workers were honest about the nature of relationships that had formed, so that any conflicts of interest arising from these relationships could be managed. 

Further, Mr Mihalopoulos' ongoing and repeated dishonesty about the circumstances of his relationship meant that the business was not in a position to appropriately manage conflicts and therefore manage its own risk. Accordingly, Mr Mihalopoulos' unfair termination application was ultimately dismissed. 

How can relationships be managed in the workplace?

In order to manage the minefield of personal relationships in the workplace, Human Resources departments should ensure that both conflict of interest and disclosure policies are in place, which employees should sign up to as part of their terms of employment. 

Once a disclosure has been made, the conflict of interest policy should provide steps to be taken to minimise ongoing risks to the business. For example, staff might be reassigned to different supervisors to ensure that appropriate disciplinary action can still be taken. 

It is critical not only that these policies exist but that they are clearly communicated to all staff, and that staff are made aware of the potential consequences of failing to adhere to these policies, including redeployment or dismissal. 

If you need assistance in managing workplace relationships at your organisation, contact us. Our team can help formulate policies around disclosure and conflict of interest, and can investigate allegations of misconduct.