You are here

Disclosing Workplace Relationships Is The Best Strategy

Let’s face it, once we are sprung from high school or a post-secondary institution of one sort or another, the workplace becomes our primary venue for socializing. Notwithstanding the occasional (or even frequent) visit to the local watering hole of choice, we still spend more hours in the presence of co-workers than any other group. 
Despite what some employers would like to believe, the workplace is where a significant portion of employees’ lives play out. It is not a sterile laboratory in which employees’ real lives are suspended for eight hours each day. 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. 
Should anyone be surprised that, in such a close and interactive environment, personal relationships will form, flourish, and disintegrate? An employer seeking to prevent personal relationships between employees will usually only succeed in forcing them to be carried on in secrecy.
When that happens, it can cause problems which are legitimately within the employer’s scope of authority. This is particularly the case if the relationship is between a supervisor and a subordinate. It is well established in law that the employer has a valid interest in knowing about, and taking reasonable steps to control (or prevent) these relationships.
For the individual who might be tempted to hide such a relationship, the best advice I can give is to resist that temptation. Hiding the existence of a romantic relationship with a subordinate can only lead to trouble later on.
Just such a scenario played out recently in B.C.’s Court of Appeal. Carroll, a branch manager at Emco Corporation, carried on a surreptitious three-year sexual affair with a subordinate employee in his branch. He conducted her performance reviews, gave her salary raises, and promoted her within the branch.
When asked questions about the subordinate’s poor attendance, Carroll gave a deceptive explanation. When asked directly about the affair, he denied it. Later, his own immediate superior asked Carroll about rumours of the relationship and Carroll again denied the affair.
The affair ended bitterly and, when Carroll began seeing another employee, the “detritus of the sexual affair spilled over into the office, creating a distraction for the other employees and a tense atmosphere that disrupted their work and the business of the branch”. Even then, when confronted about the earlier affair, Carroll denied having engaged in the sexual relationship.
Finally, when it became futile for Carroll to deny the affair any longer, he admitted it (and the subordinate also confirmed it). Carroll’s employment as branch manager was terminated soon thereafter. Emco relied on Carroll’s breach of trust and the conflict of interest in which he had placed himself.
Carroll responded by suing for wrongful dismissal. B.C.’s Court of Appeal addressed the issue of whether his conduct was egregious enough to undermine his inherent obligations as an employee. 
The Court characterized Carroll’s conduct as deceptive and deliberately misleading. It found there was evidence that Carroll’s dishonesty deprived Emco of the opportunity to take action to resolve the problems in the branch which were the result of his conduct. It concluded that the decision, that Carroll’s dismissal was justified, was solidly grounded in the evidence.
It seems clear that the demise of Carroll’s employment arose solely from the fact that he had chosen to hide, rather than disclose, the relationship. Had he disclosed it early on, it is entirely possible the employer could have come up with an arrangement which would have been mutually satisfactory. 
Having been deprived of that opportunity, the employer was left with no choice when the relationship was ultimately revealed. Disclosure, early and often, is clearly the best strategy in this situation.
Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log on to