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Les affaires de la coeur — at work

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

It’s springtime, when young people’s thoughts turn to romance, and one thing that’s sure to get tongues wagging in a workplace is two employees becoming romantically involved. Many recognize discretion in such circumstances is important, as is being able to remain professional. However, there is the potential for disruption of the workplace environment, especially if the employees work together.

Some employers have policies that provide guidelines or outright prohibition of any romantic involvement between employees. While these policies might be grounded in legitimate concerns, it’s difficult to enforce them. The reality is, people often meet more people through their job than any other means. And when many people meet and interact, it’s inevitable sparks will fly at some point. We’re only human.

It’s difficult to pin down actual numbers, but Vault’s 2005 Office Romance Survey found 58 per cent of 610 employees surveyed across the United States had been involved in a workplace romance. And anecdotal evidence abounds — most people reading this column likely either know of an office romance or have been involved in one themselves. It’s difficult, and perhaps unfair, for employers to try to ban this from happening.

However, the lines of propriety are blurred a little more if an office hookup is between a managerial employee and a subordinate. Conflict of interest, coercion and the vulnerability of the subordinate become concerns, as well as the potential for a much larger affect on a workplace and the careers of those involved. While a general office policy against romantic relationships between employees might be difficult to justify and enforce, a more specific one prohibiting supervisors and subordinates from entanglements might be seen as more reasonable, due to the risks.

Last month, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Cavaliere v. Corvex Manufacturing Ltd. upheld the termination of a plant manager who was fired for having an affair with a subordinate — and married — employee. The fact he had been disciplined for inappropriate behaviour in the past was a contributing factor to his firing, but the manager argued he shouldn’t face sanctions for the current relationship, which was between two consenting adults. Although there was a potential for conflict of interest at some point, the subordinate didn’t report directly to the manager and there wasn’t evidence of any problems until the subordinate employee’s husband found out and complained to human resources.

Still, the manager argued the situation was a private dispute between the three people and just because they were all employees of the company, it didn’t give the company the right to interfere in their business.

But do employers have the right to dictate employees’ social behaviour, either in or outside of the workplace, if they can’t prove a direct negative effect on the workplace but are worried about a potential problem? Can they completely ban workplace romances, or just put limits on them, such as in a supervisor-subordinate situation? To paraphrase Pierre Trudeau, does the employer have any place in the bedrooms of its employees?

For more information see:

Cavaliere v. Corvex Manufacturing Ltd., 2009 CarswellOnt 3199 (Ont. S.C.J.)

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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