John Tory, workplace romances and power imbalances

Toronto mayor's affair, resignation put workplace romances in spotlight

John Tory, workplace romances and power imbalances

John Tory announced his intention to resign as Mayor of Toronto after the news broke on Feb. 10, 2023, that he had an affair with his 31-year-old member of staff. In a letter to the Toronto Star, Tory’s lawyer stated that Tory “developed a relationship with an employee in his office” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tory submitted his official resignation on Feb. 16.

As the news of the affair spread, many have asked whether the affair was illegal or prohibited, and whether all workplace romances are illegal. 

Is having a workplace romance illegal?

There is no legislation or common law rule that prohibits a romantic workplace relationship. In fact, some people may meet their significant other or partner at work. A workplace romance between two consenting adults who are colleagues, is typically not frowned upon.

It becomes a problem when the relationship develops between a superior and a subordinate – in this case Tory and the staffer, who reports to the mayor. There is almost always a power imbalance. For example, Tory had the power and ability to discipline the staffer and also fire her, which could result in the employee not feeling comfortable saying “no” to her boss for fear of retribution, such as being fired. This is still the case even if the staffer initiated the relationship, as she may wish at some point to end the relationship but may not feel comfortable doing so.

A workplace romance between a boss and their employee may also result in favouritism towards the staffer, which could result in disgruntled feelings amongst the staffer’s co-workers. Moreover, there may be a slippery slope from a consenting workplace romance to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. This puts the city at risk of a human rights claim, litigation against it, and defence costs that could reach a few hundred thousand dollars.

Amorous relationships at work are on the rise so employers should take steps to minimize potential disruptions, according to an employment lawyer.

Should the mayor have resigned?

In deciding whether Tory should have resigned, one must consider what the result would achieve, especially given he is an elected representative and just starting his third term in office. As the staffer is no longer working for the city, will the past power imbalance and risk of allegations of harassment hamper his ability to continue acting as mayor? How will the disruption of his work impact the city and its workplace at City Hall?

Should an employer prohibit workplace romances?

There are serious consequences that may arise from a workplace romance, such as a decrease in morale as a result of displays of favouritism, abuse of power, conflict of interest, and even allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Further, another consequence is reputational damage to the employer, in this case the City of Toronto.

An employer may wish to mitigate these consequences by implementing a workplace policy that places restrictions on romantic relationships in the office – such as prohibiting romantic workplace relationships between superiors and their direct reports or requiring disclosure of any romantic workplace relationship to a member of the management team or human resources.

A New Brunswick court upheld the dismissal of an employee who lied about a workplace relationship that created a conflict of interest.

What are some steps an employer should implement to protect its employees?

  • Implement a workplace policy on romantic relationships within the workplace, so all employees are aware of what is permitted and what is prohibited. 
  • Educate employees on the workplace policy for romantic relationships and educate them on how to report any misconduct.
  • Implement a conflict-of-interest policy to prevent certain activities that could damage the company and its reputation due to a romantic relationship.
  • Require employees to disclose if and when they enter into a romantic relationship with another employee.
  • Require all employees to undergo training on sexual harassment, including what it consists of and the various means of reporting sexual harassment or assault.  

Takeaways on workplace romances

While a romantic workplace relationship is not illegal, it may be problematic for both employees and employers. It can lead to a slew of problems, including workplace harassment, abuse of power, favouritism, retaliations, and sexual harassment or sexual assault. Employers should implement a workplace policy and conflict of interest policy and educate the employees on the contents. Clearly define the expectations regarding romantic workplace relationships, both between co-workers and also between superiors and their reports.

Canadian HR Reporter looked at what HR should be doing to combat the trend of rising sexual harassment claims in the #MeToo movement.

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