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Close Relationships in the Workplace

The press and social media are bloated with reports of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. I do not want to write about sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct. That is about power, domination, and unjustified entitlement, unlike most close relationships that can occur in the workplace.

Employment law traverses the human experience in much the same way as family law. There is love, hate, friendship, jealousy, ambition, success, failure, and defeat. All those sorts of feelings and events impact workplaces.

There is a wealth of research on the topic. It shows that most people have experienced an office crush, or work romance, or have worked with related family members, close friends, or couples, at some time in their careers. This level of closeness is not surprising, especially here in New Zealand, with our small population and small towns and cities. We attach ourselves to one another, and rightly so.

What employers worry about most is, what to do when things go wrong in such relationships, and the power imbalance that might occur in close relationships between senior and subordinate employees. What employees worry about is, whether there will be favoritism and disadvantage stemming from such relationships.

Larger employers are increasingly introducing policies around office romances and other close relationships. Most importantly, such relationships should be declared and acknowledged so that conflicts of interest can be avoided. Employees might well wonder if they are being disadvantaged if one member of a close relationship is carrying out the other’s annual performance review, for example. A good policy will describe processes for avoiding such conflicts of interest.

When close relationships break down to the extent that they are affecting the workplace, it becomes a performance issue and should be managed as such. Performance management usually starts with discussions designed to help the employee improve their performance. The employee may need to be moved to a different team or area of work if that would help diffuse the situation. Expectations should be set down. If matters are not resolved or become nasty, then disciplinary action may need to be taken.

Employers need to recognise that close loving relationships do exist in the workplace, and some begin and blossom there. I worked recently for a family owned business with a branch office in Masterton. While I worked there, there was among the staff, a couple in a permanent relationship, several closely related family members, and a number of long standing staff members with close and abiding friendships. It was one of the most pleasant and collegial place I have ever worked. That was in no small part, because those relationships were acknowledged, respected, accepted, and well managed. They need to be. They are a fact of life.

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