Broken heart, broken workplace?

Employers must handle situations involving romantic feelings between employees carefully

By Jeffrey R. Smith

We meet a lot of people through our jobs.

Unless you work from home or have a job where you work by yourself in a lonely environment — like a night shift security guard — you’re going to encounter various other people over the course of a work day, including co-workers, supervisors, clients and customers.

It’s inevitable some people are going to run into someone they develop feelings for — whether they or the employer want to or not.

Because of the potential complications or conflicts that can arise in the workplace from romantic feelings and affect the workplace environment or productivity — not to mention raise the spectre of sexual harassment — some employers have policies in place prohibiting romantic relationships, or at least requiring employees to disclose such relationships in order to avoid conflicts of interest. But the reality is, if employees want to pursue such relationships, there’s not much employers can really do to stop it.

But what if the feelings are one-sided? If the employee with the feelings keeps her feelings to herself, it’s a private thing that hopefully doesn’t affect the job. Or if she decides to reveal her feelings to the object of her affection, it could remain private. But there is the potential to affect things at work, so how should it be handled? Should the employer become involved?

That’s exactly the circumstances a British Columbia health authority found itself in when a nurse revealed her feelings in a letter to a supervisor (Fraser Health Authority and HSA BC (Gervasio), Re, 2014 CarswellBC 2139 (B.C. Arb.)). The supervisor didn’t share those feelings, but things really became complicated when the supervisor — concerned about the risk for sexual harassment complaints — showed the letter to the employer before discussing the matter with the nurse.

The nurse said she would move on and could deal with the rejection, but she soon started sending emails and making comments to people. When HR and management tried to discuss the matter with the nurse, she claimed to be in a relationship with the supervisor and then changed her story, later making comments to others about the supervisor stabbing her in the back. The whole situation got messier and messier, until the nurse was dismissed for being insubordinate and disrespectful to the supervisor.

The arbitrator found the nurse’s letter was a “time-bomb” that had potential to disrupt the workplace, and her conduct afterwards was a breach of trust towards her supervisor and employer. Though the arbitrator upheld the dismissal, he made a point of saying the supervisor could have handled things better by trying to defuse things directly with the nurse before going to the employer. In the end, that made things worse. Though the employer couldn’t be totally faulted for the nurse’s misconduct, the supervisor and management might have been able to smooth things over a bit had they acted differently.

Situations involving employees’ feelings can be full of pitfalls, so it’s important for employers to tread carefully. The risks of upsetting the workplace environment — or starting a course of events that ends in someone’s termination of employment — must be managed carefully. Add to that the risk of a sexual harassment complaint that could open up a legal can of worms, and it’s a tough situation.

One can hope professionalism will prevail in difficult and awkward situations, but we’re all human and sometimes it’s easier said than done. Sensitivity and mindfulness of legal liabilities can help prevent someone’s broken heart from causing a broken employment relationship.

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