Rife romantic relationships in Australian workplaces underlines the need for start-ups to build an HR infrastructure early on, according to a leading employment lawyer.
Andrew Douglas, principal at Macpherson + Kelley Lawyers, says when it comes to workplace bullying and sexual harassment claims, they “overwhelmingly” relate to failed or flawed relationships.
“In small business terms, the less number of people, the higher amount of intellectual property or goodwill that’s held with each employee,” Douglas says.
“So relationships between people can be absolutely critical to the performance of the business, and it also completely skewers the nature of fairness and objectivity that exists within a business.”
“Nearly all people form long-term relationships through their work relationship; well over 60% of people meet their life partners through a work relationship, so there has to be some marrying of reality.”
Douglas’ comments come in light of new research revealing 70% of Australians have either been involved in a workplace affair or know someone who has.
According to a survey of 1,000 Australians, by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, more than half under the age of 29 admitted to an office romance.
However, 75% of survey respondents identify getting emotionally entangled, and ruining their professional reputation, as compelling reasons not to get involved with a co-worker.
The research shows someone’s title is no longer an incentive to start a relationship, with more than 60% admitting their office flame was in an equal or lower position to their own.
Gender and cultural studies lecturer Dr Melissa Greg says the increased number of women in the workplace, coupled with longer work hours and the increased use of technology, have changed the power dynamics.
“Where does the office stop and how do we police those personal and professional distinctions when the work day is extending into after-work drinks or answering emails from home?” she says.
Douglas says the survey findings reinforce the need for business owners to build a HR infrastructure, regardless of the size of their business.
“When you’re a start-up, unless you can see where you’re going, you can’t find your way,” he says.
“You must actually induct people on what are reasonable and expected behaviours, and you must manage it.”
Douglas says one way of dealing with any disputes that may arise is to have a “step-outside” function, citing his own business as an example.
“To manage HR, we had somebody external from the business to manage it. So if there were complaints on key employees, then people had somewhere to go,” he says.
“What most people try and do is ignore it… The reality is you get quite substantial drops in productivity, you have real quality problems, and you have this poisonous situation spinning off and damaging other people.”
“My advice is always to speak directly to each one of [the parties involved] individually and say, it’s not my business how or why [the breakup or dispute] occurred but it is my business [as to] how we’re going to work.”
Douglas says the biggest mistake an employer can make is to place too much emphasis on employees liking each other.
“It can be nice if it happens in an appropriate way but liking [each other] is not what we’re actually about; we’re about respect,” he says.