May 5,2010 / News / Legal Brief

With workplace friendships and romances becoming more commonplace, employers could be forced to lay down the law to prevent personal relationships from interfering with business.
“Workplace relationships are not the problem, it’s the effect of these relationships on the workplace that can create difficulties for employers,” says Anastasia Vatalidis, head of the Labour & Employment practice area at corporate and commercial law firm, Werksmans.

“Very few employers in South Africa have policies on how to deal with personal relationships in the workplace, but it is also better to be proactive than reactive,” Vatalidis says. “The workplace has changed. Today, work increasingly encroaches on people’s private lives and as a consequence their private lives encroach on the workplace. The line between one’s work and private life is increasingly blurred and employers have to take cognisance of this.”

Not a question of morality
Vatalidis emphasises that she is not encouraging employers to make moral judgments. “This is not about morals or values or about outlawing personal relationships. Employers do not have the right to dictate what they see as appropriate relationships. That would be discrimination,” she says.
“Employers may also not judge its employees, but what they can do – and in my view, should do – is to set the standards of what is expected from employees engaging in personal relationships.”

In particular, employers should insist that there be no adverse impact on the workplace as a result of a personal relationship, extra-marital or otherwise.

Potentially adverse effects of workplace relationships include what may even be inadvertent disclosure of information during “pillow talk” or preferential treatment of a subordinate employee by a senior person with whom he or she is involved. Employees engaged in personal relationships have also been known to use an employer’s time to pursue the relationship or to be dishonest about their whereabouts during office hours.

All of this could amount to misconduct, Vatalidis says. Furthermore, performance issues could arise if the employees neglect their work because they are so wrapped up in each other.
Vatalidis says personal relationships that go sour can in particular have serious consequences for employers – if they wait until things go wrong before taking a stance.

“Employers could try to reconfigure the environment so that both parties continue to work together, but this is not always possible,” says Vatalidis. “More often than not, when the relationship turns sour, it is the subordinate employee who ends up leaving, voluntarily or otherwise. Employers must be very careful not to be seen as protecting the senior person or punishing the subordinate.”

She says employers tend to only seek legal advice at the end of a relationship between two employees, when things have already gone wrong.