Canadian Underwriter

Is love in the air? Why it can hurt your brokerage

July 4, 2019   by Adam Malik

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Brokerages need to have a formal workplace relationship policy in place. Otherwise, they’re at risk of things getting messy.

Workplace issues like bullying and harassment are challenging enough; the problems are only compounded when you add a relationship to the mix (be it familial or romantic), said Laura Williams, founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont.

It gets even more complicated when a relationship develops between people who report to each other in the workplace.

“That obviously compromises the direction that’s given,” Williams said. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest in terms of the person who has managerial authority. They’re not going to properly manage the person they’re in a relationship with.”

Whether it’s two brothers working at the brokerage or a husband and wife team, principals need to establish clear ground rules. When a romance develops at work, it’s impractical to prohibit such a relationship, but these types of relationships are especially tricky ones for smaller brokerages to handle due to the size of the business.

The smaller the brokerage, the greater the risk, Williams explained. There may be only one reporting structure at the brokerage. Or perhaps the teams in the brokerage may be too small to accommodate moving employees around to ensure minimal business interruption. When possible, couples shouldn’t be in a reporting relationship at work.

“Reporting relationships are also susceptible to sexual harassment complaints,” she said. “You want to make sure reporting relationships will not be allowed. The business needs to evaluate whether the romantic relationship impacts its interests and if any decisions have to be made.”

This is where a policy comes into play. It spells out the expectations around conduct, as well as the obligations of employees in the relationship. It should also ensure that couples come forward to disclose relationships. If kept in secret, problems can fester.

In a recent survey from ADP Canada, 49% of respondents reported that their company doesn’t have a formal workplace relationship policy in place. They also fear being penalized or other misunderstandings taking place if they do report. Less than a third of respondents said they knew of a policy that clearly outlines what is and isn’t acceptable for an office relationship.

Relationships also begin because one person feels pressured to do so, the survey found. A person may wish to be considered for favourable projects, move up the corporate ladder, keep their current role, or to be in good standing with a senior employee.

That’s why policies are more about protecting employees than controlling them, said Heather Haslam, marketing vice president at ADP Canada. “These statistics represent a call to action for organizations to make their policies clear to employees and to offer them the support and resources they need to feel comfortable navigating these situations.”

That goes a long way in explaining why the policy is being introduced, Williams noted. Usually it’s in reaction to a situation gone wrong. Getting in front will better protect the brokerage. “Everyone can get their mind around the fact that there would be a conflict of interest if someone was in a relationship and reporting to their partner.”

The brokerage also needs its interests protected, Williams noted. When business decisions are being made, are they done in the best interest of the company or because the decision maker has a relationship with one person over the other?

Furthermore, Williams warned, all relationships have highs and lows. When there’s conflict, will that spill over to the workplace? Principals don’t want to be playing referee in these cases.

“You can’t have the interest of the relationship impact the interest of your co-workers and business at large,” she said.

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