Office romances can be risky business. In some cases, the consequences can be severely career-damaging, as you may have seen in recent high profile news stories across various media. While some workplace relationships may be unproblematic, employers need to see the potential red flags and mitigate the risks of inappropriate workplace conduct.
Even when a relationship appears consensual, the power imbalance of a workplace relationship between a supervisor and subordinate can raise the issue of whether the junior employee feels intimidated or pressured to consent. If the relationship goes wrong or ends badly, this could lead to a claim of bullying and harassment, as seen in the drawn-out legal battle between Amber Harrison and Seven West Media.
"Businesses and organisations who are committed to promoting a workplace culture free from discrimination, bullying and harassment need to demonstrate that appropriate workplace conduct is built on respect, responsibility and appropriate use of power."
When a workplace relationship involves a supervisor and subordinate, is very difficult to avoid the perception of preferential treatment. If co-workers believe that a promotion or reward has been given on the basis of favourtism, this has a damaging impact on workplace culture and may also lead to discrimination claims.
The biggest risk of workplace relationships is a claim of bullying or sexual harassment. For a remarkably expensive cautionary tale, you don’t need to look any further than the $37 million lawsuit between Kristy Fraser-Kirk and David Jones. Employers must implement appropriate policies and trainings mitigate the risk of sexual harassment and unwelcome conduct.
Work-related functions, conferences and events warrant a special mention in this article because alcohol consumption increases the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace. Even if the work function is held at an off-site venue or outside of normal work hours, it is still legally considered a workplace, and therefore appropriate workplace code of conduct still applies.
Respect, Responsibility and Appropriate Use of Power
All workplaces should have a code of conduct or set of policies in place to address appropriate workplace conduct, yet these codes can be very difficult to manage. Businesses and organisations who are committed to promoting a workplace culture free from discrimination, bullying and harassment need to demonstrate that appropriate workplace conduct is built on respect, responsibility and appropriate use of power.
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