It is not unheard of for an office romance to take hold and in some circumstances, even lead to long-term love. In fact, according to a Seek survey, 30% of Australians have had a romantic relationship with someone at work. Close and long term personal friendships between colleagues are even more common, which is not surprising considering it is estimated that we spend a third of our adult lives at work.

For employers, workplace relationships, romantic or otherwise, can raise a range of workplace risks and concerns and the solution is rarely black and white. This article explores an employee’s obligations and rights, in addition to practical means for employers to regulate staff conduct, in regard to office relationships.

What’s the problem with romantic relationships at work?

Forming professional, social relationships with colleagues is encouraged to foster teamwork and a positive working environment. Though when a professional relationship turns into a romantic or sexual relationship, a question often arises about the obligations of employees to notify their employer, and conversely the rights of an employer to know about a private relationship.

Not all office relationships trigger workplace concerns, but some of the common issues can be:

  • conflict of interest concerns, depending on the respective positions of the two people;
  • confidentiality concerns, depending on the respective positions of the two people;
  • if the relationship is not a healthy one, workplace harassment or sexual harassment; or
  • Tension or conflict when relationships end;

Following the implementation of the Secure Jobs Better Pay Act[1], since 6 March 2023, employers or people conducting a business are now held to a high legal duty to not only respond but prevent sexual harassment of a worker in the workplace.[2] This positive duty is held to employees, but also extended to contractors, outworkers, interns or volunteers.[3] The employer must show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the sexual harassment or they may be held vicariously liable.[4]

How can employers regulate staff when it comes to relationships?

Workplaces are full of relationships – romantic or otherwise. It is very difficult for an employer to ban or discourage close friendships or romantic relationships at work. However, the implementation of tailored policies and training in the workplace can minimise the risk of relationships negatively impacting the wellbeing of employees and the workplace in general.

Factors to consider in workplace policies include:

  • Requirements for relationships to be confidentially disclosed to HR, either as a blanket rule or in certain circumstances;
  • Policies specifically governing workplace relationships so it is clear to all employees what is considered acceptable workplace behaviour, and clearly communicating the expected boundaries between personal and professional relationships;
  • Grievance policies to provide a framework for dealing with conflict in the workplace; and
  • detailed sexual harassment and bullying policies to clearly articulate unacceptable behaviours which may arise when relationships sour, and a process for dealing with such matters.

What policies and boundaries are appropriate will depend on the nature of the workplace, the type of work being undertaken and the workplace culture. Workplace relationships, whether friendships or romantic, are inevitable. The key takeaway for employers is to make sure the right frameworks are in place to manage any associated risks.

What if employees don’t disclose the relationship?

Where an employee fails to disclose the romantic relationship when required to by a workplace policy, this can result in a workplace investigation to determine if an employee has failed to comply with the requisite policies.

However, in more severe instances, the employer may deem that there has been a breakdown of trust with the employee in light of a finding of misconduct or serious misconduct and elect to terminate their employment. In such circumstances, there may be grounds for an unfair dismissal application by the employee, but the Fair Work Commission will consider the totality of the situation and may find in the employer’s favour.[5]

It is best to tread carefully this Valentine’s Day and consult Snedden Hall & Gallop if required, for tailored advice to your workplace circumstances

[1] Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs Better Pay) Act 2022 (Cth).

[2] Ibid see s 527D.

[3] Ibid s 527D(2).

[4] Ibid s 527E(2).

[5] See for example, George Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation T/A Westpac Retail and Business Banking (U2014/9618).