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Contracts, Employment Law

The Good or Not so Good, Old Office Romance

Office relationships can present a number of challenges for employers, as discovered by Mr Turnbull with his member from New England, being embroiled in such a romance.

Challenges are not just faced by parties in the relationship, but extends to how the relationship impacts on the workplace environment, both while the relationship is ongoing, and if or when it comes to an end.

In an attempt to minimise any adverse action in the workplace, are there actions that employers need to take?

In the eyes of employment law realm, there is a real tension between an employer intruding on activities of its employees when undertaken in private, and an employer seeking to protect its reputation by preventing outside of work conduct interfering with the workplace. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has restricted the employer’s ability to terminate employment contracts for conduct outside of work. Dismissal for such conduct is restricted to conduct that is likely to cause serious damage to the employment relationship between the employer and employee.

Therefore, a consensual workplace relationship may not, in itself be grounds for dismissal. Recent cases highlight that relationships, or sexual conduct, between employees has the potential to undermine the employment relationship and therefore be grounds for dismissal.

What should employers do to minimise any adverse effect these relationships may have on the workplace.

In the context of the Sexual Discrimination Act, the protection for employers is focused on taking reasonable steps. This will involve steps such as well communicated policies and complaint handling processes, and warnings given to employees about the consequences of offending conduct.

Furthermore, employers should focus on the removal of conflicts of interest and any abuse of power, rather than a purely defensive mechanism giving a total ban on employee relationships. Senior staff engaging in a relationship with junior staff should be treated with greater care than a relationship between junior staff.

Finally, this potentially means, the most effective tool is to disclose, so that employers can manage any issues on a case by case basis.

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