Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Firms cracking down on romances at work

Air NZ among corporates cracking down on office affairs

Companies are nervous about how love can upset the workplace. Photo / Getty Images
Companies are nervous about how love can upset the workplace. Photo / Getty Images

Companies are cracking down on office romances, with bosses increasingly being asked to sign contracts promising not to have sex with staff - or if they do, they must declare the liaison to avoid conflicts.

Air New Zealand confirmed it has introduced a formal code for its 80 senior executives. Another company has banned senior staff from sexual relationships with co-workers, even if both parties are single. There were several high profile workplace sex scandals last year - notably Auckland Mayor Len Brown's extra-marital affair and that of naval Commodore Kevin Keat, who was fired after a court martial over his sexual relationship with a civilian subordinate.

And a top employment lawyer says companies are increasingly looking to introduce rules around office flings to manage potential fallout.

Air New Zealand spokesman Andrew Aitken said chief executive Christopher Luxton introduced a code last year requiring personal relationships to be declared "so there is never any ambiguity around the company's expectations".

Minter Ellison employment law partner Jennifer Mills said she helped a company, which she would not identity, write a policy to forbid senior staff from "inappropriate relations" with colleagues late last year. The move was prompted by suspicions that affairs had taken place between senior and junior staff, but would only result in action if a relationship brought the company into disrepute.

"That's the most stringent policy I've seen. The more usual policy is if you are going to have an intra-office relationship you need to disclose it." Another corporate client sought help last year after a manager and subordinate were caught having sex at a staff function. The manager was "exited" and the company adopted rules around workplace relationships. Disclosure policies were becoming more common, she said.

"When I started 23 years ago I never heard of it. Now I'm addressing this issue once a week. There's a heightened awareness that it causes damage in the workplace. Good employers don't want that."

Dairy leader Fonterra, Telecom, police, the Defence Force and supermarket giant Progressive Enterprises are among other big Kiwi employers requiring staff to disclose personal relationships with colleagues.

Mills said nine times out of 10, employees who confessed extramarital affairs were not disciplined, but companies would introduce strategies to ensure the affair did not compromise the business.

Simpson Grierson employment law partner John Rooney said companies needed to be realistic, as many people met their partners at work. Human rights lawyer Graeme Edgeler said banning relationships did not infringe those rights, but could cause problems if hiring was affected, or it led to unfair dismissal.

Married navy commodore Kevin Keat was fired in October after he was found guilty at a court martial of failing to disclose a sexual relationship with a civilian subordinate.

Auckland Council was also embarrassed by mayor Len Brown's extra-marital affair with Bevan Chuang, for which Brown has been censured by councillors.

Herald on Sunday owner APN has no employment agreements that set conditions around intimate relationships. A company code of conduct has a section on conflict of interests. If a relationship occurs, the manager should declare it so the situation can be managed.


Happily ever after in the tax department

He was new on the job. She was his trainer. And they fell in love.

Jane Blackmore and Mark Gupwell are two of the many married Kiwis who met at work.

The Cambridge couple met when Gupwell began working at Inland Revenue in 1999. Blackmore was his trainer, technically his senior. But it soon became apparent to colleagues that they were an item.

The tax department did not have any rules on relationships between colleagues, and she never considered bringing the subject up with her boss, Blackmore said.

"We conducted our relationship out of office hours and I didn't feel there was any need for it to have an impact on our day to day business."

The couple, both 43, married 12 years ago and have a child.

Employers should not be telling staff what they could do in relationships, Blackmore said.

"You step into adulthood, and part of being an adult is figuring out what is appropriate."


Your rights

• Companies can include rules around such relationships in company policy, codes of conduct and contracts.

• It is legal to ban inappropriate relationships at work if such relationships bring a company into disrepute.

• However, if staff find themselves in trouble over an alleged breach, bosses must still follow fair process. Staff are entitled to seek representation; have the allegation made clear to them; have a fair opportunity to respond; and for the employee's response to be considered before a decision is made about punishment.

- Source: Minter Ellison employment law partner

- Herald on Sunday

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