Toronto Mayor John Tory shocked the city last week by announcing his resignation due to an intimate relationship with one of his staff. Whatever your opinions about infidelity or John Tory may be, the scandal is a reminder to employers that workplace relationships may develop outside of professional boundaries. At best, these professional-turned-personal connections lead to a healthy and happy relationship for the employees in question. They put up professional boundaries while at work, you get a wedding invitation in the mail and, bonus, they can now carpool to the office. Not all relationships will not follow such a seamless trajectory, however, and can lead to significant disruption and ethical and legal conundrums for an employer. A Relationships at Work policy sets expectations to help avoid those bumpier roads.
Supervisory Relationships: Best to Prohibit
Relationships between supervisors and those to whom they may provide direction, assignments, discipline, performance reviews, or recommendations for promotions or raises should always be prohibited. Human rights adjudicators have raised fair concerns about an employee’s ability to meaningfully consent to relationships with a supervisor who has a say in their professional future. An employee may not have a true choice to refuse personal advances or to end a personal relationship with a supervisor for fear of retaliation. Even if both employees are deeply in love, promotions, incentives or benefits paid to the more junior employee in the relationship that may be withheld from other employees for legitimate, unrelated reasons, may start to feel like a game of favourites.
Peer Employee Relationships: Proceed with Caution
Employees at the same reporting level do not create the same serious ethical or legal liabilities for a company. An employer may have a hard time with a blanket prohibition on these relationships as a result, but a Relationships at Work policy can address the potential issues that may arise.
The “Ask Once” Rule
First, make it clear that unwanted pursuits will not be tolerated. If an employee asks a coworker out and that coworker says no or gives an ambiguous answer like “I’m busy” or “not tonight, sorry”, the employee may not ask again. This is probably good dating advice generally, but is a key boundary in the context of a work environment, where continuous advances may make the workplace awkward, anxiety-inducing, or intolerable for the employee being pursued. Such a pursuit would likely constitute sexual harassment, which an employer is required to investigate and address under s. 32.0.7 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Workplace Safety Applies to Everyone at Work
After two employees enter into a relationship, the more serious concerns involve intimate partner violence that may carry over into the workplace. Employers have the obligation to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of the worker, including when the employer becomes aware of a risk that an employee may be injured in the workplace. Bullying or harassment that occurs in the workplace is likewise the employer’s obligation to address, even if between intimate partners. General obligations, reporting and investigation processes should be addressed in the Workplace Violence and Harassment Policy and workplace relationships may not need to be explicitly called out.
Employees stealing away to the supply closet may only happen in Grey’s Anatomy. Flirting is likely to come up and a Relationships At Work policy can remind employees that they are expected to exercise good judgment and discretion in their professional relationships and conduct themselves professionally at work, just like everyone else. If a relationship with a coworker interferes with the company’s positive and productive work environment, the employees involved may be subject to discipline.
A policy is a helpful starting point, but workplace relationships are complex and associated issues may not resolve with a straightforward application of the policy. Reach out to us for legal advice on how to handle those challenging situations.