Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Toronto city councillor Adam Giambrone made a statement to the media  last night that he has had "intimate relations" with women other than his spouse throughout most of 2009. 

While at 32 years old, the politician may be excused for the lapse in judgment, given his former bid to run for Mayor of Toronto, the jury is out whether public opinion will be quite so forgiving.

In my view, the interesting issue is not so much whether he had affairs, but rather, the extent to which the news will have a negative affect on his credibility and ability to assume the role of leadership and responsibility of running a large city.  In fact, he has stepped down from his candidacy within a day of the news.

Companies are forced to deal with this all the time.  What happens when one of your senior people starts behaving inappropriately at the staff party?  When rumours start to fly about an affair with a junior person in the organization?  Or when two people approach you, as owner, to declare that their mature romantic relationship will not impact their workplace professional relationship?

The courts zero in on consent – if a senior executive is romantically involved with a junior employee, is the employee really fully consenting?  Or is he or she just worried about job security? 

Unless your workplace policy says otherwise, it is likely fairly benign for employees to engage in relationships with people at the same level, at least in the short-term while they are each at the same level.  The cases are clear, however, that relationships crossing supervisory roles are a problem.

In the 2009 Ontario case Cavaliere v Corvex Manufacturing, the plaintiff sued the company for wrongful dismissal.  He had worked his way up the company to a senior management position.  After a warning about sexual relationships with one employee, the plaintiff engaged in a relationship with another employee.  When that employee’s husband found out, he went straight to the owner.  The owner – and the court – found that the pattern of behaviour was sufficient grounds for dismissal.

The plaintiff insisted that the relationships were consensual and relied on a 1995 case that found consensual relationships in the workplace were not grounds for dismissal.  He argued that if the relationships were consensual, his dismissal was wrongful and he was entitled to damages for pay in lieu of notice. 

The court in Cavaliere, however, held that in 2009, the achievable expectation for an harassment free workplace required a look at all of the facts, which included:

  • the company had already warned him in writing to cease the behaviour;
  • he was in a position of senior management; 
  • the last relationship was with a particularly vulnerable junior subordinate; and
  • the plaintiff just "didn’t get it" that the behaviour in the circumstances was inappropriate.

These were all reasons to uphold the termination and deny him any termination pay.

Those in leadership roles will bear a greater onus to guard against romantic relationships with subordinates.  While many Canadians still agree that the state (or the courts or the company) has no place in its citizens’ bedroom, for leaders and senior folks in your organization, that may not be quite so true.