Call it a Hallmark holiday, call it a day to shower your significant other in flowers and chocolate or call it a day for singles to feel just a little more single. Whatever your views on Valentine’s Day, the event brings up all types of feelings about romance. With the topic of love in the air, now is the perfect time to discuss office romances.

With the #metoo campaign still fresh in mind and the recommendations of the Respect@Work Bill now signed, sealed, and delivered into law, sexual harassment is at the top of the list of risks associated with office romances. Other risks with office romances can include conflict of interests, the awkward tension between individuals if the romance doesn’t work out, and on the flipside, potential lowered productivity, and increased distractions if the romance is simmering and the individuals are – as they call it – love struck.

Let’s not forget that there are some positive outcomes from office romances. After all, reports say 50 per cent of all working Australians will engage in an office romance at some stage in their careers, with a significant number of these people actually ending up in a long-term relationship with their office romance. The trick for employers is to be aware of office romances and ensure a safe working environment for all individuals including the loved-up couple and their colleagues. Outlawing any sort of relationship between co-workers may just make them all that more appealing (forbidden love).

Here we share five practical steps you can and should take to ensure a safe workplace which is free from the risks associated with office romances gone wrong.

1. No grey areas: set and enforce clear policies around consensual relationships

Of course, you’re not one to stand in the way of true love. But for liabilities’ sake, you need to know what is going on between co-workers in your organisation. The negative ramifications of a romantic relationship can be significant, the largest risk being a conflict of interest which can impact other employees. This is especially true if the relationship involves a manager and a subordinate.

Your workplace policies should set clear ground rules around relationships between employees in the workplace. We recommend that your policy requires employees to disclose any workplace relationships either to HR or management, even if it’s just a fling. A transparent approach from both sides regarding the landscape and relevant risk is key, short of the intimate details. This way you can react accordingly like changing reporting structures or reassigning tasks/roles to minimise the risk of conflict.

Be sure to include clear consequences for nondisclosure, such as disciplinary action or termination.

2. What is unacceptable workplace conduct?

What may seem like innocent office flirting, could be entirely something different. However innocent, public opinion has recently drawn a clear line in the sand when it comes to any sexual harassment allegation. Regardless of job title or workplace, sexual harassment claims can result in the ending of the employment relationship and incur massive financial and reputational consequences for businesses. When it comes to defining unacceptable workplace conduct, it’s crucial to be clear about what does and does not constitute sexual harassment, for the safety of your employees and your brand.

In cases of sexual harassment, employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of employees. However, if an employer can demonstrate they took all reasonable steps to prevent employees from engaging in unacceptable workplace conduct, they may be able to avoid large fines and legal charges. A well-drafted sexual harassment policy is a step in the right direction.

3. Do effective processes and procedures reduce risk?

Yes. The key to managing and mitigating any risk is effective workplace training, specifically establishing how to prevent, identify, and respond to sexual harassment concerns. Personal matters that arise in the workplace are often ignored however, this isn’t an effective way to deal with valid concerns before they escalate. Ensuring that all employees are aware of the established processes and procedures will help to minimise risk and reduce the potential for needing to take advanced action.

4. Where can my employees report or register complaints?

Your employees need to be comfortable to kiss and tell without the risk that workplace rumours will start to spread. Make sure you have multiple channels for employees to report consensual and non-consensual behaviour at work. Every business must have a detailed grievance procedure that allows for escalation if the employee isn’t satisfied with the result. This way you can act proactively before any patterns of harassment become engrained or conflicts of interest arise.

5. See the full picture, and investigate thoroughly 

The last piece of the puzzle is the investigation. When any allegations of harassment arise in your workplace, an employer needs to conduct an unbiased investigation into the incident. Failure to correctly address such matters internally can now result in employees lodging an application with Fair Work to stop sexual harassment within the organisation, demonstrating the value of having an effective approach to dealing with such concerns. Implementing robust anti-sexual harassment policies in the workplace plays an instrumental role in preventing misconduct in the first place and limiting disputes from being escalated to the Commission.

If the claims are numerous and serious, you might want to outsource the investigation to an experienced workplace relations law firm to gain legal professional privilege. This means you can get all the details of what went on without having to disclose everything to the courts if it will cause your brand reputational damage.

Whether or not you’re a believer, Valentine’s Day seems to have a way of getting people thinking romantic thoughts. Romance in the workplace is inevitable and shouldn’t be outlawed. However as recent events have shown, there’s a huge risk of relationships between work colleagues turning sour. The best defence is to know all the facts so you can react accordingly to protect your employees and company reputation.

How enableHR can help?

We believe HR should be simple. Simple enough for you to run your business confidently. Inside enableHR is everything you need to manage the entire employee lifecycle, from recruitment and onboarding to managing your people and termination. If you’d like to see enableHR in action, contact us to learn more about how we can help your business.