“Most forward-thinking organisations call them disclosable relationships so effectively it's an extension of what I'd call conflicts of interest,” said Morris.
“In Australia, we're all really good at talking about avoiding conflicts of interest when they're engaging with third parties and making that known and disclosing all those types of things, but we're not so great when it comes to internal conflicts of interest, and the subset of that is romance in the workplace. US companies are much more advanced than Australian companies in this regard. In a lot of cases, they make it mandatory to disclose an internal relationship which may be perceived as a conflict of interest.”
He said that relationship disclosure should be a confidential conversation between the employees and the relevant HR person, who would then decide whether any changes needed to be made in the workplace to minimise the risk of any relationship-related problems.
The question is, at what point should a budding office romance have to be disclosed?
According to Morris, it should be when they are at the point of possibly creating conflicts of interest, which can arise in a number of situations – for example, if one person in a relationship is reporting directly to the other party, from a fraud perspective, there’s the risk of collusion, he said.
“I've seen cases where workplace romance was part of a fraud, where a person in payroll was redirecting part of their salary to their romantic other as a method of lowering their pay and defeating the divorce settlement process and payments they may need to make in terms of maintenance.”
Lisa Croxford, national leader, equal opportunity and training, at Herbert Smith Freehills, said that in some cases, senior management might be unaware of an office romance, but the rest of the employees would know about it.
“So every decision about how work is allocated or promotions are given out is seen through the lens of this relationship. That obviously causes problems in terms of perceived equity and fairness.”
Public displays of affection could also lead to sexual harassment complaints from other people in the office who felt uncomfortable seeing such behaviour.
“It’s unlikely that a person would complain about witnessing a single incident of sexually-related behaviour, but it might come up because they are experiencing other problems at work as well,” said Croxford.
But even having a disclosure policy won’t guarantee that everyone will abide by it.
“If someone starts going out with and lives with another co-worker, they might not want everyone at work to know about it, but it might be a relationship that they are happy generally for people to know about,” said Kate Jenkins, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner.
“Compare that to two married people who are having an affair with each other – no matter the disclosure policy, even if it’s confidential, there’s still the challenge that more than likely, they don’t want anyone to know about the relationship and so it’s not the cure-all for affair scenarios.”
There’s also the question of whether office flings should be reported.
“There are short-term workplace romances that might not reach the point of conflict and it might be over pretty quickly. The question with those is, at what point might you require disclosure? Those short-term ones certainly do have the risk of sexual harassment. I know that we at the commission get complaints of a consensual relationship that was a one-night stand and turns into stalking kind of sexual harassment when it was no longer welcomed.”
Do you think employees should have to disclose office romances?
It’s traditionally seen as a sensitive subject in Australian businesses, but according to PPB Advisory partner Peter Morris, employers need to take a serious look at disclosure policies for workplace romances.