Christa Ludlow, Principal Consultant of Weir Consulting, discusses what to do if co-workers in your team become romantically involved and have an acrimonious break-up.
“I’m leading a team and two of the members have become romantically involved. I’m worried about what may happen if they break up and don’t want to work together any more. How should I deal with this?”
Relationships at work have been in the news over the past year, whether it is the Federal Parliament’s “bonking ban” or anonymous letters at Price Waterhouse Coopers alleging sexual relationships between partners.
Assuming that the relationship is consensual, and you are not dealing with a case of sexual harassment, you should consider if your organisation’s workplace policies have any implications relating to relationships in the workplace. Some organisations require employees to disclose such relationships, as it could create a conflict of interest.
In the case of George Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation T/A Westpac Retail and Business Banking a senior manager’s dismissal was upheld by the Fair Work Commission because he lied when asked about his relationship with an employee, lobbied for her to be promoted, and when the relationship soured and he was made subject to an AVO, breached the AVO twice.
Some organisations ban relationships altogether – as the Australian Prime Minister has done – but the ability to enforce this is doubtful in most workplaces.
Many people meet their partners at work, and this may end up as a happy and long-lasting relationship. From your perspective as team leader, however, you want reassurance that the relationship will not have any adverse effects for the harmony and productivity of the team and the organisation.
One novel measure which has been introduced by some employers in the US and UK is the “love contract”. This is an agreement or acknowledgement signed by both parties that their relationship is consensual. It may also include express agreement on how the couple will behave at work and what will happen if the relationship ends.
They have not been adopted in Australia and their legal effect in Australia is dubious.
A better and more reasonable approach may be to meet with the employees and remind them that the employer’s expectations about mutual respect, conflicts of interest, teamwork and appropriate conduct in the workplace continue to apply whether they are in a relationship or not. Remember that “the workplace” can include workplace social events, field trips and conferences.
If the relationship ceases to be consensual, you may need to repeat this discussion and assess the situation afresh. Hopefully any breakup will be amicable and they can continue to work together, but if not, you will need to be on the alert for any behaviour which may breach workplace policies, constitute sexual harassment or risk work health and safety.
Christa Ludlow is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in employment law and administrative law, and a qualified coach and mediator. She is a Principal Consultant with WEIR Consulting. WEIR provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors. Contact Christa at firstname.lastname@example.org