OpinionOffice love or workplace headache?Christie Howson

NEW GUIDELINES: Apparently there is no love lost between these two, who are dealing with the splitting headache that is ‘Barnabygate’.With the scent of romance still lingering in the air post Valentine’s Day (and a fair scent still lingering in Parliament), it is a timely reminder to ensure that office romances do not turn into workplace headaches. No workplace is immune from staff either forming, or attempting to form, romantic relationships. This can cause a number of issues, from formal Fair Work Commission claims, to actual or perceived breaches of workplace policies, to a disruption to workplace culture. The current Barnaby Joyce media storm is a simple case in point.

The management of workplace romances is challenging, time consuming, but necessary. The US House of Representatives is trying to manage this issue by introducinglegislation that prohibits relationships between politicians and their staff. Recently our prime minister has signalled implementing similar guidelines in the wakeof #barnabygate.

Some workplaces do implement policies that prohibit workplace romances. These policies can extend to fraternisation among all employees whether romantic or not. These policies may also seek to specifically prohibit romantic relationships between managers and subordinates. The consequence of engaging in romantic relationships may include redeployment to another role or termination of one person’s employment.

A shortcoming of these policies is that often romantic relationships may still occur, but be conducted in secret. It then becomes difficult for the employer to monitor the compliance of the policy. The implementation of the policy may also have the unintended consequence of losing talented and valuable employees.

If office romances are not specifically prohibited, then how best should an employer manage them? The first step is ensuring that the issue of office romances is included in your workplace policy documents. An employer should clearly communicate from the outset their expectations in relation to couples who work together.

Workplace policies should also deal with sexual harassment and set clear expectations with regards to the appropriate types of communication and interaction between employees. It is not an unusual situation where seemingly unrequited love or innocent flirting from one employee, can be construed as harassment or bullying by another employee.

Regular workplace training on expectations and best practice regarding sexual harassment and communication between employees can assist to mitigate risk. Training and policies should encourage all communication in the workplace, including workplace emails to be professional, open and transparent. Supervisors should also be equipped with the skills to identify behaviour that may represent possible sexual harassment. This will allow any issues to be dealt with quickly and amicably.

Perhaps the worst thing that can happen in any workplace scenario is to adopt the ostrich policy of sticking your head in the sand and hoping for the best. Instead, regular review, implementation, education and enforcement of workplace policies can promote a harmonious and productive workplace.

Christie Howson is Solicitor Director, Employment and Litigation at Osborn Law

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