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We live in a fast-paced world where people spend more time at the office than ever, increasingly mixing work and play, which many organizations encourage to foster team-building and collaboration. Along the way, passions sometimes flare and people connect on an intimate level. But a recent pair of high-profile incidents offer a harsh reminder of the potential pitfalls these personal relationships in the workplace can have on employers.

Take the admission earlier this year by the mayor of London, Ont., of an inappropriate personal relationship with the city’s deputy mayor. Or the tragic suicide of a Toronto Star reporter, allegedly linked to an affair with a senior editor at the newspaper, who at the same time had also allegedly been involved in a romantic relationship with the Star’s managing editor. (The senior editor no longer works at the newspaper, while the managing editor has been reassigned outside the newsroom).

While workplace relationships can flourish without incident, they can also pose major challenges for employers on a number of levels. In fact, anti-sexual harassment and workplace violence legislation introduced in many provinces was borne of workplace relationships gone awry. In Ontario, Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, 2016—which just came into effect—was inspired by a series of incidents where workplace relations morphed into violent encounters that, in at least one case, resulted in a fatality.

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Bill 132 expands the definition of workplace harassment and sexual harassment, and strengthens the Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Act with respect to violence and harassment in the workplace. Employers will now be legally required to develop a program to implement anti-harassment policies, and investigate any harassment allegation that is brought forth by employees.

To be clear, not all workplace relationships involve harassment. Many blossom between consenting parties and have no impact on their organizations. But they can become problematic when there is (or could be) a conflict of interest between the parties, such as when one of the individuals holds seniority over the other and influences their receipt of benefits, or even their ongoing employment or potential termination. If the relationship sours, the lower-ranked party could claim they were harassed, and given the sexual component of the relationship, this would force their employer to launch a comprehensive and potentially costly workplace investigation with possible disciplinary or termination proceedings.

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In other words, workplace relationships can get very messy very quickly and, setting aside the employment law ramifications, can have a huge impact on workplace morale and engagement.

So, the best remedy is to institute an outright ban on romantic relationships between your employees, right? Not so fast. The extent to which an employer can police the out-of-work activities of her staff is relatively limited. And the reality is that if two consenting adults want to become romantically involved, they’ll do it regardless of some sort of arbitrary restriction. The best approach is to design policies that specifically address the issue and set guidelines that protect the organization and the individuals in question, not to mention their colleagues.

Start by including clauses in your workplace policy manual that require employees to declare a relationship and any potential conflict of interest, and specify that personal relationships are deemed inappropriate if they cause a conflict of interest or if one party holds rank over the other. These should be accompanied by policies prohibiting nepotism in the event that an individual seeks to promote or advance the career of their romantic partner without an objective process, including the input of an impartial third party within the organization.

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In the event that the relationship causes a clear conflict, the policy should outline the consequences, which could include one person being required to either exit the organization or take a non-conflicting role if one is available. In other situations, management could opt to move the individuals to different teams so they can’t collaborate on important projects. This can help avoid any negative impact on the team dynamic.

One last point: ensure that employees understand and agree to abide by these policies. It’s one thing to state rules in a policy manual, but regular reminders will help reinforce their importance and the consequences that will flow in the event of violations.

When most of us launch a business, our last concern is managing the romantic workplace relationships of our employees. But this is a fact of life for any organization with employees, which is why it’s a process best managed proactively.

You may not be able to avoid the eventual heartbreak should the relationship crater, but you can take steps to protect your company culture and bottom line.

Laura Williams is an employment lawyer and founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont. She has more than 15 years experience providing proactive solutions to employers aimed at reducing workplace exposures to liability and costs that result from ineffective and non-compliant workplace practices.


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