Relationship risk: more than broken hearts at stake

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More than a third of people have dated a colleague, and many have done so more than once, but that’s not always good news for HR.
According to a new survey from CareerBuilder, 35% of people have dated a coworker, with 25% of those employees marrying their office sweetheart. However, marriage is no barrier to romance for some, with 17% admitting that they or the person they dated was married at the time of the romance.
The major concern for HR, however, is that 22% of people dated someone above them in the organization, with 12% dating their own boss. Canadian courts have traditionally been suspicious of any romance between a supervisor and subordinate.
“There’s a presumed lack of consent when you have that power imbalance and the court will be very suspicious about whether or not the relationship was consensual,” employment lawyer Russell Groves said. “There’s a clear distinction between people with disparate power levels within the organization – supervisors and their underlings is more serious than two peers being involved.”
The executive/secretary cliché may be popular in TV and movies, but in reality that can be a big risk.  In one Canadian case the courts upheld the dismissal with cause of a senior executive who had an on-going relationship with a junior staff member who was not fluent in English.
Groves did not recommend a strict ban on work relationships because such a policy was essentially unenforceable. However, with 34% of employees saying they tried to keep their relationship a secret, it is worth considering a disclosure requirement.
“The idea of reporting it is that steps can be taken to mitigate the potential for conflicts of interest and to confirm that everything is transparent and consensual,” Groves said. “One employee directly reporting to the other, one can be transferred or there can at least be some scrutiny around decisions made. The first step is transparency.”
Because of the risk of sexual harassment claims, and the need to provide a safe working environment for all staff, HR should implement their violence and harassment procedure if they have suspicions about specific relationships. It’s better to take steps beforehand, rather than having to react to a bad situation.

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