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Pulling back the covers

Do employers have a right to know about office relationships?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau once said the government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. But do employers?

Most employers would probably prefer employees do not get romantically involved. There are always potential pitfalls when co-workers hook up, pitfalls that can get messy, whether the relationship works out or not. But it’s practically impossible to completely avoid workplace romances.

People spend one-half of their days during the week, and sometimes longer, at work. Many spend more time with co-workers than most other people in their lives. It’s not surprising that sometimes this leads to bonding and intimacy. More than one-third (38 per cent) of United States workers and 31 per cent of Canadian workers have dated a co-worker, according to surveys by CareerBuilder. That’s not insignificant.

I’ve discussed before the issues that can come up when office affairs spring up — sexual harassment risks, office gossip and conflicts of interest if one of the employees holds a position of power over the other. But what can employers really do about it?

A recent Ontario case involved a long-time manager who carried on an affair with an administrative assistant for several years. When they started the affair, the company had no policy on office relationships and there was no reporting relationship between them. However, the company later implemented a policy that required the reporting of such relationships so the company could ensure there was no conflict of interest or sexual harassment. However, the two employees didn’t report the relationship and the manager lied to his superiors about it, even after rumours began swirling around the office.

Ultimately, the company found out about the affair and the manager was fired for breaching company policy and lying about it. It turned out that later on in the affair, the manager had said glowing things about the assistant’s work to other managers and recommended her for a transfer to his department.

It’ s clear that once the manager started talking up the assistant and trying to get her transferred to his department, the relationship was affecting his job. Situations like that were exactly what the company was trying to avoid when it implemented its policy. But if the manager had done nothing and the two of them continued to work in separate areas without affecting their work, was the fact of their relationship relevant to the workplace? What if they were at equal levels rather than a manager and assistant?

Naturally, employers are concerned about sexual harassment and conflict of interest, but what is the balance between that and employee privacy? An employee whose relationship brings up the risk for a conflict of interest should be obligated to inform the employer as part of his job — but what if there is little risk?

Romantic relationships have the potential for messiness, especially in the workplace. But should employees have the right to keep their affairs under the covers?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

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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