What Every Business Owner Should Know About Office Romances

Office romances can lead to litigation, so understanding how to manage them is vital for business owners.
Couple Working Together in Office
The most effective way to handle office relationships is to establish a clear policy on how your business handles such realtionships. (Photo: GaudiLab/Shutterstock)

Although romance in the workplace is nothing new, it remains a tricky issue for business owners. A budding romance on the job is not only difficult to manage for employers, but it can also lead to some potentially awkward situations that can hurt productivity and morale.

Stuart Rudner of Rudner MacDonald, a Toronto­-based firm specializing in employment law, shared tips for how employers can best navigate workplace relationships.

Understand workplace romances are out of your control

People will be people, and Rudner said employers may find it difficult to enforce a policy prohibiting workplace romances – except when there is a conflict of interest or harassment.

Not only would such a policy impede upon an employee’s personal life, but “it is impossible to enforce because there are so many relationships being formed at work and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that,” Rudner said.

“A romantic relationship between colleagues is not a concern in and of itself, but it will be when one of them has control over the career path, workload or compensation of the other.”

Set a clear conflict of interest policy

Establishing a clear policy on how your business handles dating is paramount. Having defined parameters ensures everyone knows what is appropriate and what isn’t.

“What I recommend is having a very clear policy on relationships that have a conflict of interest and setting out clear examples of what those conflicts of interest might be,” Rudner said. “Conflicts of interest can take many forms, including a personal or intimate relationship between an employee and their subordinate, or a purchaser ordering supplies from a family member. Any policy should explain what a conflict of interest is, provide examples and direct the employees to disclose the conflict immediately.”

When there is conflict of interest, a business owner can intervene

As a small business owner, you have the right to get involved when a workplace romance has a conflict of interest. Not only do you have the right, but you have an obligation to your business’s standing to get involved.

“Something we see happen often is when a superior dates a subordinate and there is obviously a conflict of interest because there could be perceived favoritism,” Rudner said. “Then from there, [the employer] would need to take steps to eliminate the conflict. Either transfer one of the individuals, remove authority or do whatever they need to do so there isn’t any conflict.”

In a small business situation, that might also mean scheduling the individuals on different shifts, or creating a dialogue that discourages inappropriate behavior in order to boost morale again.

You can’t fire someone for having a workplace romance

It’s important to remember that you can’t fire someone solely because they’re engaging in a workplace romance.

“An employer needs to be careful that they don’t fire someone for having a relationship at work because if they do, they are opening themselves up to a (legal) claim,” Rudner said. “If you fire someone, you can open yourself up to a wrongful dismissal claim or a discrimination claim if, for example, the employer always dismisses the female employee in the relationship. Employers need to be very careful as to how they respond. But if there has been a legitimate impact on their business because of the romance, then they can take legal steps to address that.”

Every workplace should have a sexual harassment policy

In addition to your conflict of interest policy, Rudner recommended that every workplace implements a harassment and sexual harassment policy.

“[This policy would] provide guidelines as to what type of behavior is unacceptable and what an employee should do if they feel that they are being harassed,” he said. “That would include constant romantic approaches, offers of employment benefits or threats of repercussions if sexual favors are provided and/or refused.”

“Unfortunately some relationships do not end well. You will have one person who wants to continue the relationship while the other party doesn’t, and we have had cases where that results in a harassment or stalking case,” Rudner said. “If that exists, then the employer might face liabilities if they don’t take steps to address it.”

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