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Love in the workplace a fact of life

The Ontario Human Rights Code states that every person has the right to be free from a sexual solicitation from a person who is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to them if the person making the sexual advance knows or ought reasonably to know that it is unwelcome.
 
The translation is that it is not contrary to the Code for a boss to ask out somebody who reports to them but if they get a clear no and they keep asking, they are going to get themselves in trouble.
 
The Code also states that everyone should be free in their employment from a reprisal arising from the rejection of that invitation.
 
So, if you are really have a hankering to ask out somebody who’s lower down on the totem pole than you in the corporate structure, remember to ask nicely, ask only once, and if the answer is no, don’t let your hurt feelings affect in any way the workplace relationship.
 
I am always amazed how many calls I get from Human Resource managers who are alarmed at discovering that a supervisor is dating one of the workers. People forget that the workplace is where we spend much of our waking hours. People meet and fall in love there every day. That will never stop.
 
Employers should  have a policy that  anyone in  management must immediately disclose any personal relationship between them and another employee. If that policy has been clearly communicated, managers who fail to disclose can be disciplined. More importantly, if they follow the policy, reporting structures can be changed so that other workers, who are always the first to know about the relationship, do not think that favouritism is taking place. That can be awful for morale.
 
So what about relationships between co-workers? Let’s imagine that Donna is married and Brian is single. They had become very friendly over time in the workplace and eventually a secret and intimate relationship evolves. When things started to get serious, Donna gets scared and decides that she wants the relationship to end. By now, Brian is very emotionally involved and distraught. Although Donna has told him she wants it to be all business from now on, he keeps emailing her and talking to her in the workplace, trying to convince her to return to the relationship.
 
Ultimately, out of frustration, Donna goes to the human resource manager and discloses all. She says she wants Brian to be told not to talk to her about anything other than work.
 
Although the relationship did begin on a consensual basis, Brian is now verging on sexual harassment even though he is not Donna’s boss.
 
The HR manager sits Brian down and tells him what Donna wants and that he must comply.
 
Everything seems to go back to normal but a few months later Donna is back in the human resource manager’s office. Brian, she says, is pestering her again. After the HR manager asks a few questions, she discovers that a few weeks after the last event, Brian started talking to Donna again about their relationship. Donna willingly engaged in these conversations as she felt bad for Brian.  Although she did not want to restart the relationship, she wanted to be a friend. But Brian didn’t take it the right way and kept pressing her to become more and more personal. Donna wants the HR manager to tell Brian to cease and desist. She wants it to be all business all the time again.  She wants management to do her bidding. Donna is in for a little bit of a surprise.
 
A few days later, both Donna and Brian are pulled into the HR manager’s office and given a letter which says that if either of them talk to the other one about anything other than work in the workplace in the future, that person will immediately be terminated with cause. That seemed to have fixed the problem once and for all.
 
Employers reading this will be wondering why Brian and Donna were the employer’s problem. They were adults who started a consensual relationship and they are simply dealing with the natural outcome. Why does the employer have to get in the middle of all of this?
 
Like it or not, everyone is entitled to be free in their employment from sexual harassment. Although it makes little sense, the reality is that since the behaviour is taking place in the workplace the employer has to act.
 
HR managers get nervous about any relationship between co-workers and especially between management and subordinates. They are concerned that if the relationship goes sour  a subordinate  will later claim that it wasn’t a consensual relationship. It is important, however, not to  over react to this kind of situation. If you are concerned, meet with the worker and ask them directly whether this is a consensual relationship and whether they feel at all pressured to be involved in it. Assuming the answer is no, make notes at the meeting and leave it there. It will be extremely difficult for the worker to later claim that they were pressured. Keep in mind that if the relationship goes on for any length of time, it is almost impossible for somebody to claim they were pressured into repeated dalliances. Inevitably, there is a leftover Valentine’s card or naughty email form the “victim” that proves it took  two to tango.
 
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, March 8, 2010
 
 
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809
ecanning@rossmcbride.com