We all know a happy couple that met at work. What’s the big deal? They’re two consenting adults. Shouldn’t employers treat their employees like adults? But what about when the balance of power is skewed towards the boss?
Relationships at work can raise issues of power differentials and proper use of entitlements.
In the wake of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s extramarital affair with former staffer Vikki Campion, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has banned ministers from having sex with their staff.
"It is not acceptable for a minister to have a sexual relationship with somebody who works for them," Turnbull told reporters on Thursday 15 February 2018. "It is a very bad workplace practice. And everybody knows that no good comes of it."
Former newsreader Tracey Spicer, who has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement in Australia, said office relationships were inevitable.
"With the increasingly long hours people work these days, there will always be relationships that start in the office," she said.
"This is especially true of politics, when people are away from their families for extended periods of time."
Ms Spicer, who has been investigating sexual harassment in the media and entertainment industry, said "a consensual relationship where there is an equal power balance is fine."
Traditionally, Australian practice has focused on managing potential conflicts of interest through disclosure rather than an outright ban on consensual relationships.
K&L Gates employment lawyer Alice DeBoos said the 'sex ban' was unnecessary and she doesn't advise clients to ban consensual relationships.
"Employers need to treat employees like adults and a sex ban does not do that - employees need to understand their obligations to act appropriately and exercise proper judgement. That should, in most cases, mean they don't have sex with subordinates and if they do, employers are free to make decisions about that lack of judgement - they don't need a policy to rely on," she said.
Just like politics, big business is also grappling with the issue of their staff in personal relationships with colleagues - though it's certainly not a new one.
Across the board, businesses don't seem to support the need for a ban on bonking, rather they choose to take a more mediated approach. After all, emotional-sexual relationships tend to arise between people who spend lots of time together, have similar interests and feel they can share their experiences - sounds a lot like people we work with!
The tricky part about relationships in a working environment is that there is quite often a distinct organisational hierarchy. Hence, the requirement to declare a relationship, where there is a power imbalance, is becoming more common in big business. Let's take a look at a few businesses to understand their approach.
At accounting and consulting firm PwC, there is a code of conduct which requires disclosure of any close personal relationship to a member of the company's Human Capital team.
"It's for partners and staff. We handle each situation on a case by case basis to manage any conflicts of interest. It is an internal policy - not available on our website," PwC spokeswoman Stacey O'Dea said.
KPMG adopts a "practical approach" to romantic relationships at work which combines "formal protocols with individual responsibility for applying good judgment and making informed choices", according to KPMG Australia's national Managing Partner of People, Performance and Culture Deb Yates.
"Of course, where there is a relationship, the person cannot be a performance manager or be involved in the establishment of the performance outcomes, or be involved in secondments or transfers," she said.
At health insurer Medibank, similarly the code of conduct is used to assess whether a relationship between work colleagues is acceptable or not. "Workplace relationships do occur and they are acceptable unless they create conflicts of interest," Medibank spokeswoman Emily Ritchie said.
Maurice Blackburn employment lawyer Josh Bornstein said there was no problem with consensual relationships at work, even if it involves a subordinate.
He said consensual relationships were "perfectly ok at work", even if it involves a relationship between a manager and a direct report.
At Thrive we focus on the part of your life where career and family intersect. Inevitably, people form relationships at work and sometimes these relationships are sexual. It’s naïve to think a 'bonk ban' would stop this and it’s also pretty unfair on employees.
Like any issue that crops up at work, professional or personal, keeping the lines of communication open and putting the appropriate checks and balances in place goes a long way to ensuring the needs of the employer and the employee are being met.
Perhaps, if Barnaby Joyce had declared his relationship with Ms Campion to the PM they could have been separated to avoid any perception of conflict of interest or preferential treatment. Food for thought.