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Employment & Labour

No bans necessary on office romances

Even in the #MeToo era, employers should steer clear of bans on office romance, Toronto employment lawyer and mediator Stuart Rudner tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Rudner, founder of Rudner Law, says the implementation of non-fraternization policies is often a knee-jerk reaction by companies as a way to reduce risk.

“To me, it’s ridiculous to try to ban workplace relationships. Not only is there no legal basis for it, but it’s not possible in practice to enforce it,” he says. ”For many of us, work is where we spend the bulk of our time and is a big part of our social networks.

“It’s inevitable that it will lead to physical or intimate relationships from time to time,” Rudner adds.  

Further, there are many types of close relationships in the workplace other than romantic ones — you may have close friends, or parents and children. Each of these situations can create issues, he says.

Rather than focusing on the relationship, which should not be cause for concern, Rudner advocates paying close attention to possible conflict of interest and harassment issues (or allegations) that can arise from these relationships.

“You shouldn’t have situations where one person in the relationship has control over the compensation, workload or career progress of the other,” he says.   

For example, when a romance develops between a manager and a direct subordinate, Rudner says company policy should require the people involved to report it.

That way, he says the employer can satisfy itself that the relationship is truly consensual, and take steps to ensure that the working relationship between them changes to remove any conflict of interest.

“In a large organization, it’s not so difficult to move someone to a different department or change their shift so they report to a new manager,” Rudner says.

“It’s more challenging for a smaller employer, but a compromise can often be found. If not, in some cases, you may have to say that one person will have to go and work somewhere else.”   

Where relationship reporting is required by a company’s policies and procedures, Rudner says employees can protect themselves by abiding closely to those rules.  

“Honesty is the best policy,” he says.

“There have been cases where employees were fired after failing to report a relationship, and denying the existence of one when confronted with suspicion. Those terminations were generally upheld," he adds.

“They weren’t fired because of the relationship, but because they breached the policy and behaved dishonestly. That’s an important distinction to make,” Rudner says.

Although he says there’s “nothing inherently wrong” with having a relationship, Rudner says there’s a good chance they will cause upheaval in the workplace. Co-workers are likely to feel some jealousy or suspicion of favourable treatment, he says.

In addition, there may be workplace fallout in the event the relationship ends badly, he says.

“One person will often feel spurned, and sometimes you will get allegations that the relationship was not actually consensual,” Rudner says.

He says employees can guard against mischaracterization of the romance by keeping records of texts, cards, and other communications between the parties.

“It doesn’t sound very romantic, but it can be useful if you ever have to defend yourself from an accusation, especially for a person in a managerial role,” Rudner says.

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