Workplace New Year’s Resolutions for Employers: #1 – Implement Workplace Relationship Policies

Happy New Year! For the next few posts, I thought I’d focus on lessons learned through employment law cases – essentially a list of resolutions to make and keep in 2015 – for employers and their HR departments, in particular. The first one, Shirbigi v. JM Food Services Ltd., 2014 BCSC 1927 (CanLII), comes to us from British Columbia and deals with what can happen when a boss has an affair with one of his employees and a Workplace Relationship Policy either isn’t in place or isn’t followed . The sordid details can be summarized as follows:

[8] [The Employee] is a 40-year old woman who emigrated from Iran in 2004. In 2009 she began working at a corporate FreshSlice store as an assistant manager. Within a short period she became the store manager and, in January 2010, she was the successful candidate for the corporate position of DM….

She is talented and then gets the position. Things get complicated quickly:

[11] Coincident with [the Employee’s] securing the DM position, the owner and CEO of FreshSlice, sent her an email congratulating her and suggesting they meet for coffee or brunch on a Sunday morning, when he usually goes to the gym or for a hike. [The CEO] was married and his wife was on maternity leave from her employment at FreshSlice’s head office at the time.

[12] [The Employee] said she agreed to do the Grouse Grind with [the CEO] one Sunday in January 2010; however, when he came to pick her up they stayed at her apartment, watched a movie, and had sex. [The Employee] said this marked the beginning of a surreptitious sexual relationship with Mr. Russell, which continued until September 2010.

Clearly, having a surreptitious affair with an employee is wrought with consequences – both on the family of the CEO and in the workplace. Long story short, the relationship continued, eventually soured and the Employee received an unsatisfactory performance evaluation and what she perceived to be a demotion / constructive dismissal.

In court, the CEO denied the affair entirely, though admitted that they were “friends” and she lived in an apartment owned by him and argued that she had requested the demotion. The Judge held otherwise, concluding that she had been terminated without cause and awarded her damages.

Moral of the story? Workplace affairs are bad. Lawyers can’t always decide where and when love should happen, but CEOs and HR should ensure that policies and processes are in place to ensure that when love does blossom in the workplace, measures are taken to ensure that those involved aren’t in reporting relationships and/or that the person in the position of power doesn’t exercise their power with respect to their partner.

Stay tuned for the next “Resolution”, next week.


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