Romance in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

With Valentine’s day just around the corner, romance is in the air. And while there may be a dating app out there promising partners to match every taste, there is still something to be said for the thrill and spontaneity that comes with finding romance out in the real world: at a café, the grocery store, a painting class or perhaps even at your place of work.

Workplace relationships are nothing new and are fairly common. However, unlike romances between people that are sparked online or at a café or park or college classroom, relationships between coworkers can create unique risks and challenges for their employers.

For many employers, finding out that two of your employees are in a romantic or sexual relationship can be stressful. Indeed, most employers would probably prefer if their employees never dated one another because of the complicated employment and even human rights issues that can arise as a result.

Risks associated with workplace romances

When it comes to workplace romances, the troubles usually start when the relationship ends, which most do. If both parties are not able to maintain a civil, professional relationship, they can create a toxic workplace for all.

Of paramount concern to employers when it comes to their employees becoming more than just friends with one another is the risk of harassment complaints. It is every employer’s legal obligation to provide a harassment-free working environment. Everyone has the right to a safe, comfortable and harassment-free work environment.

The line between flirtation and harassment can be thin and you should therefore always make sure that any workplace relationship is consensual. If an employee claims that a relationship was not consensual and that they were harassed after a workplace relationship has ended, the employer may need to launch a workplace investigation to address such an allegation.

However, most relationships between coworkers do not lead to complicated workplace scenarios. Challenges usually only arise if the relationship is incompatible with the employees’ duties. For example, a conflict of interest can arise if the employees in a relationship have reporting duties to one another (i.e. one of the partners is the superior and the other is their subordinate).

Best practices for employees

Consenting relationships are not illegal but they may still be against workplace policies. Employees should therefore familiarize themselves with their workplace’s policies concerning romantic relationships between coworkers and disclose such a relationship if it develops to HR when appropriate.

As an employee, you have the right to a safe, comfortable and harassment-free work environment. If you are harassed in your workplace, you should document and report the incident to HR as soon as possible.

Best Practices for Employers

Given the challenges that may arise from workplace romances, employers may be tempted to forbid them altogether, which would technically be your right to do. Employers have the right to terminate an employee for breaking such a workplace rule, however, you would need to use progressive discipline for non-compliance in order to justify a just-cause termination.

However, an outright ban on workplace relationships is an extreme measure that may cost you talented employees or lead them to pursue their romance in secret. A more reasonable option for employers would be to forbid relationships between employees with direct or indirect reporting duties (i.e. between superiors and subordinates).

A better option still is to have reasonable, clear and comprehensive policies regarding harassment and workplace relationships and to apply these policies consistently. Employers should properly train their employees on their policies, reporting procedures and any corrective measures they have in place. A good general rule, for example, would be to require that employees disclose workplace romances to HR.

Your main concern as an employer, in addition to the safety and comfort of your employees should be to minimize the disruptive impacts of workplace relationships. As long as a workplace romance doesn’t impact or interfere with your business interests, breach policies or present some other risk, employees’ romantic relationships with one another shouldn’t pose too much of a concern.

In the end, workplace relationships are a complex landscape to navigate and must largely be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. An experienced employment lawyer can help you develop comprehensive and functional policies to govern workplace romance and procedures for addressing challenges should they arise. Call us at 905-639-0999 or click here to book your consultation.