“How many ways can you screw a girl?” – Workplace Romances

“My case is a lesson in how many ways can you screw a girl?  The boys club has shown that they are still, for now, in control, but we can change that.  And we will.” (7:30 Report 18 July 2017)

These are the words of Amber Harrison, the day after the Supreme Court of New South Wales ordered her to pay the costs of her former employer, the Seven Network.

Background

During an internal investigation into allegations of unauthorised expenditure, Amber Harrison disclosed that she had been in a relationship with Tim Worner, a senior executive of her employer. On 1 August 2014 terms of settlement, including stringent confidentiality terms, were signed and an independent investigation was commenced.

In late September 2014, the independent investigation concluded that Ms Harrison had misused credit cards to incur unauthorised expenditure of $180,000 over a period of approximately five years.  After mediation, the parties entered into a second deed containing strict confidentiality terms and a $400,000 payment to Ms Harrison in instalments.

One of the provisions of the second deed required Ms Harrison to allow Seven access to her electronic devices. Ms Harrison refused to allow this access and Seven refused to make the instalment payments to Ms Harrison.

Litigation

In December 2016 Ms Harrison decided to tell her story despite the confidentiality provisions of the terms of settlement.  Not surprisingly, the Seven Network issued proceedings to silence her.  Ms Harrison cross-claimed that the failure to pay repudiated the settlement.  She also alleged sexual harassment and, a after failed conciliation, landed this matter in the Federal Court (later abandoning it).

Ultimately, three years after the initial internal investigation, the Seven Network obtained a permanent injunction and costs orders against Ms Harrison.

Risks of Workplace Relationships

Days after the final orders against Ms Harrison, two senior AFL executives resigned in relation to inappropriate workplace relationships with younger female subordinates.  It must be assumed that the reputational damage caused to the Seven Network could not be tolerated in the public relations sensitive AFL.

Workplace relationships between executives and subordinates, particularly when there is an age differential, are likely to result in perceptions of preferential treatment and sometimes actual preferential treatment.  Such situations will inevitably lead to a loss of trust in management and a disruptive workplace.

As was demonstrated in the Seven Network saga, consensual relationships which end badly can result in allegations of sexual harassment against the executive, the employer and other employees.  Whether these allegations are proven or not, they will always be disruptive in the workplace and often cause reputational damage.

Mitigate the Risk

It is unlikely that a policy banning workplace relationships could be enforced, however, a policy discouraging workplace relationships and prohibiting situations which may give rise to perceptions of preferential treatment, may be effective and enforceable.  The policy should be couched in motherhood language demonstrating that such relationships will give rise to perceptions of preferential treatment and conflicts with the interests of the employer in maintaining a harmonious workplace.  The policy should set out the potential consequences of the failure of an employee to avoid situations giving rise to conflict in the workplace and/or causing reputational damage to the enterprise.

The introduction of any such policy changes should be accompanied by appropriate training of managers and human resources staff, who must treat the implementation of the changes as serious and lead by example.  The changed policies must be clearly and effectively brought to the attention of all employees.