Dangerous liaisons: Workplace love gone wrong

I met my wife at work – and I’m certainly not alone.

Statistics abound regarding the prevalence, and outcomes, of workplace romance. So if you’re thinking about rolling the dice with a co-worker, you can do the sums on the various pros and cons.

One of the most popularly quoted sources of data is US-based CareerBuilder.com’s annual Valentine’s Day survey, which this year reported that 37% of American employees have dated a co-worker – and 33% of those romances have ended in marriage. The odds of finding long-term love at work, therefore, would seem extremely good.

A competing survey in 2014 by workplace research firm Vault paints a slightly different picture. It suggests a much greater proportion of US employees have indulged in an office hook-up (55% of men and 56% of women), but fewer have gone the distance (17% of women and 11% of men).

A UK study in 2013, meanwhile, reported that couples who met at work were the most likely to end up married. In contrast, relationships that bloomed from the classic night out on the town tended to wilt in the short term.

My own decade of wedded bliss, and the three kids it has produced, can offer a lovely anecdotal postscript to these encouraging numbers. Before the nuptials, however, came the nightmare.

A previous workplace relationship in my early 20s resulted in two years of secretive excitement – and then one hell of a messy ending with fallout for me, the lady, our jobs and the mutual friendships with co-workers both inside and outside of office hours.

And even in the heady days before the fall, by my own admission, passion definitely did not equate to productivity…

Inevitably, this is the scenario that will always be lurking in the mind of an employer observing the tell-tale signs of a burgeoning office affair. And it also hints at the reasons Australia’s new Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, has previously been on record recommending that companies consider ‘disclosure policies’ to avoid conflicts of interest between dating co-workers – particularly if those involved are at different ends of the managerial hierarchy.

Certainly, intra-office love can have myriad impacts on productivity and team dynamics – but there are much darker undertones besides: some estimates have suggested that as many as one in four workplace romances end in a sexual harassment claim – something no responsible employer will want to be subject to.

The concept of a disclosure policy is something US companies are much more familiar with than their Australian counterparts. A 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 42% of American employers have written or verbal policies on office romances – up from just 20% in 2005.

A typical policy would require dating co-workers to confidentially disclose their relationship to a relevant HR officer at the point where a possible conflict of interest could occur – thereby providing the employer with an opportunity to identify the risks and determine how they might need to be dealt with.

In the US, there have been several high-profile cases of CEOs falling foul of such policies in the wake of romantic interludes with those reporting to them. The mighty may have fallen less frequently here in Australia, but there is no shortage of examples of love-gone-wrong at work.

One recent case in particular ticks almost every box in the employer-beware manual. A Westpac Bank Manager, who in 16 years had worked his way up from modest beginnings as a teller, engaged in a six-month affair with a subordinate reporting directly to him.

This case had everything: both parties were married; the manager concealed the relationship from his supervisor – even upon being asked directly; he actively advocated and achieved the promotion of his lover; the relationship ended badly, and violently – resulting in an apprehended violence order (AVO) that the Bank Manager subsequently breached. And the affair cost him his job.

Upon his application for unfair dismissal at the Fair Work Commission (FWC), the Bank Manager failed primarily because of the conflict of interest the relationship represented – something that his contract of employment directly required him to declare (if not specifically in the context of a workplace romance).

“Employers cannot stop their employees forming romantic relationships,” said Deputy FWC President Hamberger in delivering his judgement. “However, in certain circumstances, such relationships have the potential to create conflicts of interest. This is most obviously the case where a manager forms a romantic relationship with a subordinate.

“I find that the applicant’s relationship… had the potential to create a conflict of interest. His failure to disclose this relationship to his manager, and his subsequent (and repeated) dishonesty when asked about the relationship by that manager – in combination – amounted to a valid reason for his dismissal.”

As unwilling as Australian employers might be to trespass into “private” matters that it might be more comfortable to ignore, the reality is that the incidence of workplace romances – and the issues they present – is only likely to increase.

Consider the following insight courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics: according to its How Australians Use Their Time survey, the average Australian socialised for 77 minutes outside of work every day in 1992. But by 2008, that figure had dwindled to just 10 minutes.

Increasingly, the workplace is representing our best bet for social interaction. So, as an employer, what’s your next move? Is it time to cover your risk of love gone wrong with a disclosure policy in your workplace – or perhaps to broaden your existing Code of Conduct to specifically include disclosure of office-based relationships?

Please share your experiences and ideas to start a conversation below.

Should you require any advice on this subject, please contact Ai Group Workplace Lawyers.

The following two tabs change content below.
Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.