So, you want to try workplace dating? Well workplace pressures are already significant. Tight deadlines and office politics can be mentally draining. On top of that, the long work hours can be overbearing. So why make it more complicated? In your case, maybe you want to ask your cute co-worker out for coffee. Or maybe you just swiped right on someone (i.e. told someone you like them on Tinder) who, it turns out, is in the cubicle down the hall (how embarrassing)? Better yet, what if you’re interested in your supervisor but you’re not quite sure how to approach it. Well, welcome to everyday life.
With the average Canadian spending approximately 20%* of their year in the workplace according to the O.E.C.D., it should come as no surprise that office life can bleed into personal life. And so, with the workplace coming to play such a central role in the average person’s life, you’re often left to debate the tension between romance and work. For instance, is it appropriate to date a co-worker? And if not inappropriate, should such relationships be pursued?
Is Dating a Co-worker Allowed?
In responding to issues about office romance or dating between co-workers, the question that is most asked is whether such relationships are appropriate. Generally, there is nothing in law that prevents a person from engaging in a romantic relationship or pursuing a romantic relationship in the workplace. Neither the Employment Standards Act, 2000 nor the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1990 (the “OHSA”), nor any other legislation in Ontario prevents an employee from pursuing office romance or dating. However, simply because it is not prohibited does not mean that such relationships are entirely “allowed”.
An employer or organization may have specific policies that ban or at least limit office relationships within its workforce. Interestingly, while bans on dating are not actually illegal, complete bans on office relationships are not the normal approach taken by employers. Firstly, a ban on relationships may not actually be enforceable; secondly, even if enforceable, such a ban will simply result in office romances being kept a secret from bosses.
Instead of banning relationships, many organizations choose to have policies on office dating which speak to limitations or disclosure requirements. Often, these requirements tend to apply, at a minimum, to those relationships that are between management and sub-ordinates. Practically speaking then, it’s fair to say that an employer can place certain restrictions or requirements on office relationships; however, the extent of these restrictions will be determined by individual contracts and any policies that are in force at a given workplace.
What do the Courts Say?
The cases of Reichard v Kuntz Electroplating Inc. (2011) ONSC 7460 and Smith v Vauxhall Co-Op Petroleum Limited (2017) ABQB 525 provide excellent examples of the impact that dating policies can have on employment. In both cases, terminated employees held management roles with their organizations. The terminations arose, in part, because the employees deceived their employers through their denial of an ongoing romantic relationship with their subordinates.
Ultimately, in these cases it was found that both employers had just cause to terminate the employees, in part, based on the ongoing dishonesty of the employees and their failure to abide by policies requiring disclosure. Although these cases do not prove that dating in the workplace is prohibited, they suggest that it is at least necessary to comply with employer policies relating to office dating. Further, these cases show that violations of these policies can lead to termination.
The Human Rights Code and other Legislative Requirements:
Alright, so you’re reading this post and you think, “great, dating is mostly allowed”. Well not so fast. If you’re an employee, you have to be careful with how such relationships are pursued and acted on. If you’re an employer, the same caution applies.
Remember that while dating in the workplace is not prohibited, there are restrictions and prohibitions on the things that are, by extension, connected to the dating process. For example, while asking someone out on a date may be awkward or humiliating, that act is not necessarily inappropriate or prohibited in the office. However, asking someone out who has repeatedly turned you down can be a problem. Similarly, PDAs or affection in the workplace can be a problem based on the impact of those actions to those working around you.
To expand on this, the Ontario Human Rights Code, 1990, (the “Code”) prohibits against discrimination in employment. It also functions to prohibit against sexual harassment and other forms of harassment. The meaning of harassment however can range from an ongoing set of behaviours that “ought to be known to be unwelcome” or a single act that should be viewed as similarly inappropriate or unwelcome. Without excluding other types of behaviour, this concept can of course apply to actions such as repeatedly trying to ask someone out. It can similarly apply to PDA in the workplace which often times has the effect of making those around you uncomfortable.
In addition to the Code, the OHSA introduces requirements that employers must follow in respect of workplace harassment and violence such as maintaining policies to address and investigate complaints of harassment. Together, the OHSA and Code requirements create a system of complaints and accountability for employers that is designed to foster safe work environments and to protect employees from unwelcome and unsafe conduct in the workplace.
In meeting these noted requirements, employers are required to, and should ensure, that they have harassment policies that specifically protect against all forms of harassment, including sexual harassment, and which specifically outline how such complaints and action are to be dealt with in the workplace. Similarly, individual employees and managers ought to take a minute of introspection and really ask themselves whether their behaviours are appropriate for the workplace and whether they could reasonably expect to make someone (or anyone) feel uncomfortable.
What does it all mean?
At end of the day, while dating is not normally prohibited in the workplace, an employee may still be bound by the specific requirements of any dating policy that might apply to their work environment . Beyond this, it’s important to know that workplace relationships or dating can conceivably result in risk or liability for either individual employees, the employer, or both. In order to insulate against these risks, employers should ensure that they have systems in place to both respond to complaints of harassment and to pro-actively curb problematic or soon to be problematic behaviours in the workforce.
In contrast to employers, employees should use common sense and should also be receptive to the signals of their co-workers as a way of knowing when a behaviour or a set of behaviours are unwelcome in the office. On the other side, if you are the employee being subjected to inappropriate behaviours, it is important to know both your rights and your options for filing a complaint with your employer. Similarly, it is important to know the extent of an employer’s obligations under Ontario law.
At the end of the day, these tasks can be complicated and can pose challenges for individual employees and employers. In these difficult circumstances, an employment lawyer can assist in you in navigating the legal landscape. At the same time however, and as with many things, it’s worth repeating that common sense can be a great tool for those wanting to date around the office.
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