In my experience, most organizations do not explicitly address the office romance in their human resource policies. This issue can be addressed in an organization’s anti-discrimination policy or a sexual harassment policy but most don’t. Failure to do so can lead to significant legal liability.
What is an organization’s potential liability in connection with an office romance?
A wrongful dismissal action and/or a human rights complaint can arise out of an office romance. If the employer fires an employee for retaliating against a co-worker for ending an office romance then the employee can bring a wrongful dismissal action. If an employee is penalized for ending an office romance then she can file a human rights complaint.
An example of wrongful dismissal exposure
Here are some facts in connection with a wrongful dismissal case that arose out of one office romance that ended badly:
A lawyer with one of Ontario’s cities and the Mayor’s executive assistant had a consensual office romance. She ended it; he was not amused. Thereafter, he harassed her at work and at home. At one point, he advised the Mayor to terminate her employment. The court concluded the City had just cause to terminate the lawyer’s employment. The City had a sexual harassment policy and a policy against harassment and discrimination, however, neither policy required an employee to disclose an office romance.
An example of human rights exposure
I was retained by a board of director a number of years ago. The organization’s senior manager had a romantic relationship with a subordinate. Another employee claimed this relationship constituted a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code because the relationship – which was known to a number of staff – including alleged benefits to the subordinate was causing a “hostile work environment.” When confronted with the allegations the senior manager, a lawyer, admitted to the relationship but claimed he had no legal obligation to disclose it.
Should employees be required to disclose office romances?
When drafting an anti-discrimination policy or a sexual harassment policy, I think an employer should consider whether or not an employee should be required to disclose a romantic relationship and if so, in what circumstances and when this disclosure needs to be made.
Doug MacLeod is an employment lawyer who has been representing Ontario employees and employers for over 20 years ( www.macleodlawfirm.ca ). He can be reached at [email protected] or at 1-888-640-1728.
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