You are here

WORKPLACE SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The arrest of the International Monetary Fund’s managing director has put the spotlight on the workplace atmosphere at the IMF. Doubtless, Dominique Strauss-Kahn would have preferred to be the author of workplace change under more positive circumstances.

Strauss-Kahn was arrested and charged with sexual assault in New York after allegedly confining and assaulting a hotel chambermaid. He has denied the charges and is under house arrest after putting up $1 million in bail and posting an additional $5 million insurance bond.

Strauss-Kahn’s arrest prompted a report in the New York Times that sexual harassment and extra-marital affairs are rife at the IMF’s Washington premises. The Times’ story was entitled, “Men on Prowl and Women on Guard”.

The Times’ story described an atmosphere populated by “alpha male” economists and women taking active steps to avoid unwanted attention. It called the IMF workplace a “climate in which romances often flourish — and lines are sometimes crossed”.

According to the Times, A 2008 internal review found few restraints on the conduct of senior IMF managers, concluding that “the absence of public ethics scandals seems to be more a consequence of luck than good planning and action.” A spokesperson for the IMF has denied the existence of any institutionalized harassment and disrespect.

Coincidentally, the IMF has introduced a new code of conduct restricting personal relationships in the workplace. The new code identifies the potential conflict of interest arising from a personal relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate and calls for early disclosure of such situations.

Romantic relationships in the workplace have, of course, been around just as long as there have been workplaces. The workplace is, after all, one of our main socializing venues after our formal education comes to an end, so there’s not much point in trying to eliminate personal relationships between co-workers.

Surveys have indicated that over one-half of employees have been romantically involved with a co-worker and almost one-fifth of employees met their spouse at work. So, an employer seeking to totally prevent personal relationships between employees may only succeed in forcing them to be carried on in secrecy.

There are circumstances, however, when an employer can (and should) lawfully impose restrictions on office romances.

It would, for instance, be perfectly acceptable for an employer to take disciplinary action when the activities of couples stray over into misconduct. This may be especially noticeable in the event of a breakdown in the relationship, when residual hostilities tend to manifest themselves in ways which are destructive to workplace harmony.

The most important context in which employers may regulate office relationships is between supervisors and subordinates. It is well established that the employer has a legitimate interest in knowing about, and taking reasonable steps to control or prevent, these situations.

The key problem arising from the supervisor-subordinate romance is the existence of a power imbalance between the two. The prospect that the supervisor will abuse his or her authority in the course of the relationship is of great concern to employers.

For example, a supervisor who is in the position of assessing the partner’s performance, affecting his or her salary, or making decisions about promotions is a supervisor who is not able to act objectively. And there is always the real prospect that this position of power will be used in a negative way if the relationship ends.

Acting preventively, the employer can (and should) establish a policy, guidelines, and training on appropriate workplace relationships and conduct. This should be a core component of the employer’s ongoing management training regimen.

The objective is to establish a broad awareness of the boundaries of acceptable conduct. Empowering employees to recognize the early signs of such a situation will equip them to take evasive measures.

Perhaps the IMF will be better off for having gone through this episode, in the sense of having discovered the need for some form of regulation of workplace relationships. That may be little consolation, right about now, for Mr. Strauss-Kahn.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.