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BD Investigations’ founder, Tova Bar-Dayan, draws on nearly two decades of practical experience to break down topical issues relevant to today’s and future workplace. Below Tova shares her knowledge within her blogs updated weekly.

Love Is in The Air and Maybe in The Boardroom!

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We still laugh about the idea of the office romance in movies and on television. Whether it’s the subplot of a sitcom episode (thanks Pam and Jim), or a full-out big budget romantic comedy (The Proposal, anyone?), we chuckle at all of the awkward cover-ups and cliché misunderstandings because we know that, at least in Hollywood, everything will end well and those involved will go off into the sunset happily ever after.

Reality, though, is very different and can be much messier. For every successful office romance that ends in a lasting relationship, there are others that create havoc when they end in a mess, and others still that may either be non-consensual or take advantage of a power imbalance in the workplace relationship.

With tokens of affection everywhere we look, signalling that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, how should workplaces properly handle an office romance? What sort of policies should businesses of any size have in place in order to prevent problems?

Banning workplace romances outright usually does not make sense – love conquers all, and lovebirds will keep on flying – just under the radar. Good and reasonable policies, however, can encourage transparency and avoid conflicts of interest, thus helping to prevent problems before they occur. 

You Had Me at Policy

A workplace policy cannot stop two people from falling in love. As the old saying goes, “the heart wants what it wants.” What policy can do, and should do, is set out the conditions and the rules under which that love can flourish, and spell out exactly when that sort of love will be a problem.

While opposites may attract, a policy can and should prohibit employees and supervisors from starting a relationship if one directly or indirectly manages or supervises the other. Not only is there an obvious power imbalance between the two, but there is the obvious concern that the supervisor was taking advantage of their power, or likewise that the employee was powerless to say no.

Even if the relationship was not coerced, it would be impossible to eliminate perceptions or allegations of bias or favouritism. The employee would be unable to escape the suggestions that their success, or failures at work were the result of the relationship, and ultimately their future with the company would forever be seen as tainted.

Love May Be Blind, but Management Shouldn’t Be

Aside from prohibitions against dating direct/indirect reports, policies can spell out clear rules about how a Human Resources department can and should chaperone the relationship. New relationships should be disclosed to HR immediately, and HR can then implement any monitoring that they deem appropriate, adjust reporting lines, or have the employees sign an agreement individually confirming that the relationship was entered into freely and is consensual.

A policy can also advise the two of how to handle their relationship among colleagues. Even if the news is public, the two should always remain professional, avoiding too much public affection or sharing of intimate details. Handling a relationship inappropriately can impact team dynamics, and have greater repercussions than just on the couple themselves.

Lastly, an employer does not need to wait until an office romance occurs to then build a reactionary policy that they try to implement retroactively. Instead, policies dealing with these situations before they even begin should be routine, and can be built into a larger employee handbook so that employees and managers know the rules as soon as they join the company.

It’s Not You, it’s Policy

A couple should be instructed to behave just as professionally if their relationship ends. While they may have their challenges personally, they can be made aware that those challenges are not to cross over into the workplace, and they can be subject to discipline if they behave inappropriately or are mistreating the other person in any way. That sort of toxicity has the potential to spoil a larger team dynamic and needs to be avoided entirely.

Love Means Never Having to Say Harassment

The primary concern around office romances is sexual harassment. Many workplaces will implement a variation of an “ask out once” policy, stating that employees have a single opportunity to ask a co-worker they are interested in on a date, but if they are rebuffed, or the co-worker is not interested, any further attempts will be considered sexual harassment.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) in Ontario classifies workplace sexual harassment under the broader umbrella of workplace harassment, and defines it specifically as:

(a)  engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, or

(b)  making a sexual solicitation or advance where the person making the solicitation or advance is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker and the person knows or ought reasonably to know that the solicitation or advance is unwelcome.

Essentially the law prohibits two levels of conduct – one prohibition against unwelcome conduct between employees, and another between managers or supervisors and their direct reports.

The law further requires employers to have a written policy about workplace harassment, that is readily available in the workplace and reviewed regularly. Employers are also required to implement a program educating workers about the workplace harassment policy, and how incidents of harassment will be dealt with.

If an allegation of harassment or a complaint is made (and it does not need to be made by one of the parties), OHSA requires that an employer conduct an investigation “that is appropriate in the circumstances.” These investigations may be smaller initiatives taken by HR for smaller complaints, but can often involve an external investigator who can interview any parties involved to gain a complete understanding of the complaint and advise the employer how it should be handled.

Workmates to Soulmates

If handled properly, workplace relationships may not be a problem. Many happily married couples meet on the job, and so long as they conduct themselves appropriately and follow workplace policies, they may be celebrating their silver jubilee wedding anniversary in the office cafeteria!

The definition of ‘appropriately’ here means that employees are following an unambiguous and informed policy while in an office romance. When Cupid’s arrow strikes, employees need to have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and what conduct is prohibited.

The last piece to remember is that employers need to take harassment seriously, and make thorough investigations a priority. An office romance gone wrong can not only offset a team dynamic, but can bring potential harassment allegations which an employer needs to act on quickly in order to resolve the situation and avoid any further liability.

If you’ve never conducted your own in-house investigation, or you aren’t sure where to turn next, call a professional. A trained workplace investigator knows how to handle even the most delicate of situations and can serve as your third-party factfinder to conduct a fair, impartial investigation that gets to the bottom of things and lets you make informed decisions.

Looking to learn more about our process? Contact us today to set up a call.

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