Relationships in the Workplace: Tips for HR Managers

25 Jun 2019

Relationships in the Workplace Tips for HR

Workplace relationships, familial, romantic or otherwise, are a fact of life. If people spend large amounts of time together at work, it is almost inevitable that some of them will end up in a relationship of some description.

Navigating these sorts of issues in the #metoo and #timesupera – where allegations of inappropriate and predatory behaviour in the workplace have become commonplace - has only served to highlight the importance of having clear workplace policies in place that aim to protect personal and professional reputations and minimise legal risks.

Workplace romances and relationships may give rise to issues beyond those of a sexual nature, such as sexual harassment.  For instance, in circumstances where a manager is in a relationship with a subordinate (especially in a supervisory capacity), the Fair Work Commission (FWC) has found that such relationships have the potential to create conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest can have wide ranging commercial and legal implications, such as in unfair dismissal claims.

What should HR Managers do?

Be alert not alarmed; every workplace is unique and workplace policies should be tailored appropriately and fit for purpose.

Implementing a strict “no relationship” policy is unlikely to be effective or create a transparent and harmonious workplace culture where staff actively self-disclose potential conflicts of interest.

A prudent HR Manager will take steps to ensure, as and when appropriate, that workplace policies articulate when a workplace relationship may give rise to a perceived or actual conflict of interest and confirm that all conflicts are to be disclosed. Such an approach will go some way towards clarifying the duties owed by staff as well as minimising the risk to all concerned, including the employer.

Having regard to recent case law, HR Managers would do well to:

  • Ensure that policies on workplace relationships are clear and communicated to all staff in equal terms;

  • Empower and train supervisors, managers and team leaders to effectively communicate, supervise and manage their working relationships, particularly with subordinates; and

  • Draft or update (and implement) policies, staff manual or Codes of Conduct that deal with conflicts of interest and associated disclosures, equal employment opportunity, appropriate workplace behaviour and sexual harassment.

A workplace policy is only as helpful as it is realistic, lawful and enforceable.  As with any policy, it should be made clear to staff what the potential consequences are of not disclosing a workplace relationship may be. 

HR Managers will need to ensure that these policies expressly state that disciplinary action, up to including termination of employment or engagement, may be an outcome when employees fail to disclose a workplace relationship in circumstances where the relationship may be perceived as, or creates, a conflict of interest.

Need help updating your workplace policies?

Having outdated, incorrect, unlawful or unhelpful workplace policies may be more problematic than having no policies at all.
Whilst an experienced HR manager is well placed to draft and roll out workplace policies, best practice tells us that all workplace policies should be reviewed by a workplace lawyer.

There is no reason why a modern, vibrant and professional workplace cannot see appropriate friendships and relationships blossom when all concerned understand their duties and obligations with respect to workplace relationships and our employment and workplace relations team can help you ensure that your business has the right policies in place. Get in touch with us today to find out more.

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