Author of the article:
The Canadian Press
Published Feb 14, 2023 • Last updated 7 hours ago • 4 minute read
TORONTO — As Toronto Mayor John Tory prepares to step down after admitting to an “inappropriate relationship” with a former staffer, experts say preparation is key to protect both employees and employers from the risks such relationships create.
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Companies and other organizations should have clear policies on office romance, especially around relationships between subordinates and supervisors because of power imbalance involved, said Lior Samfiru, national co-managing partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.
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“Because can a relationship truly be consensual, ever, if there’s that imbalance of power?” he said.
Many companies don’t allow relations between subordinates or managers, but if it’s going to be allowed there should be a clear need to disclose so steps can be taken to minimize negative effects, such as concerns about favouritism from other employees, or for the subordinate to not feel trapped in the relationship, and for them to know who they can confidentially speak to about it, said Tumarkin.
“It’s reasonable to assume that subordinate may think well, what happens to me if I say no, what happens to me if I was once OK with this relationship, and now I’m no longer OK with it. Can I end it? What will happen to my job, to my compensation, to my status in the workplace?”
Underlining the power imbalance, a 2019 survey of Canadians on behalf of human resources consultant ADP found that 19 per cent of respondents who had been in a relationship at work said they felt pressure to be part of a romantic relationship to progress in their career, keep in good standing, or be considered for favourable projects.
Policies around relationships between subordinates and managers isn’t just about protecting employees, but the employer as well, as without any protections in place the company can also become liable in human rights laws that can come into play.
Because of the power imbalance, the law almost presumes there isn’t full consent, so all an employee would have to do is say that it’s wasn’t consensual for there to be an issue, said Tumarkin.
“There would be complete liability under human rights laws for the manager, which is why a relationship like that is so problematic and risky.”
He said his understanding is that there was no City of Toronto policy dealing directly with the issue of a relationship between a mayor and staff member, but that a number of municipalities have taken a hard look at their policies in recent years.
Just last fall, Ottawa city council voted to have policies that address relationships between members of council and staff.
It’s also important to make those policies clear when bringing employees aboard, said Kiljon Shukullari, HR advisory manger at Peninsula Canada, both on the policies themselves and on how to disclose relationships or report issues.
“It goes a long way, whenever there’s open communication between the two sides, to avoid any type of negative impact,” said Shukullari.
He said some workplaces still take a stricter approach and try to not allow any inter-office relations, but that many take a more lenient approach, acknowledging that it’s fairly common.
The ADP survey found that a third of respondents had been in a relationship at work, while 83 per cent were overall alright with the idea. Just under half said they had no formal policy in place at work. The survey heard from 885 Canadians with an margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Without a policy in place, companies can find themselves in damage control, said Shukullari.
“The problem is that if you don’t have anything in place, and you have to be reactive, and usually, especially with things like these, it can escalate pretty quickly. So instead of managing the situation, then you might have a very messy claim on your hands.”
It’s also important to go just beyond policies and make sure managers are actually trained around these issues, said Lisa Stam, founder and managing partner of employment and human rights legal firm SpringLaw.
“It’s on the managers. All liability, all responsibility,” said Stam. “Whether you’re the mayor or the CEO or whatever senior role you are, those regular reminders of ethics and the breach of trust that happens when you’re sleeping with a subordinate.”
She said that while issues certainly come up during the relationship, often the impact comes after it ends, creating lingering questions over any promotions or any other sort of benefits or penalties that come up.
“It gets emotionally messy, and then it’s at that point that these power imbalances come up, not during.”
By having such rules in place, it also gives management or the board of directors more options to take actions. The failure to disclose a relationship was grounds enough for McDonald’s Corp.’s board of directors to fire former chief executive Steve Easterbrook in 2019, while CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker resigned last year after he failed to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2023.