When accusations of inappropriate relationships between federal ministers and their staffers were aired recently, Malcolm Turnbull suggested parliamentary standards of workplace conduct were decades behind those in the corporate world.
Mr Turnbull, who introduced the “bonk ban” in 2018 preventing personal relationships between ministers and their staffers, told the ABC last month that the treatment of women in federal politics reminded him of the corporate scene 40 years ago.
It is a view shared by many. “Labor will adopt its own ban on sex between MPs and their staff, as Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese moves to bring his party into line with corporate culture,” The Australian Financial Review noted. In an opinion piece for the Herald, former NSW Liberal minister Pru Goward wrote of a “very clear failure of the nation’s parliaments to do what much of corporate Australia has done: recognise the risks associated with sex at work and manage them”.
But is the perception corporate Australia is tougher on relationships between bosses and their subordinates true? What do our biggest companies actually have to say about office romances?
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age asked more than 100 of Australia’s best known and largest sharemarket-listed companies if they had policies that addressed workplace relationships. The corporate affairs departments of only 56 of the 107 companies contacted replied. Some of our best known corporates including AGL, Alcoa, Santos and Coles either declined to comment or did not respond to straightforward questions.
High-profile companies recognised by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency as employers of choice were among those contacted, along with ASX 100 companies.
Of the companies that did respond, 48 had policies to address close relationships. These policies were often embedded in more general codes of conduct and related to avoiding conflicts of interest or power imbalances.
Many policies required disclosure of any close personal relationships to a manager or human resources. The purpose of disclosure was to ensure couples working in the same team could be separated to avoid any power imbalance or other conflict of interest.
While none of the companies surveyed outright prohibited staff from being in a close personal relationship, some would not allow workers in a relationship to remain in the same reporting line.
Commonwealth Bank of Australia is one of at least six companies surveyed that do not allow staff in a close personal relationship to work in the same team, especially if one party was more senior than the other. So while a majority of companies had policies to avoid a conflict of interest, none of them imposed an absolute ban. This made them less strict than the Canberra “bonk ban” which could result in the outright dismissal of the more powerful party in the relationship.
Eight companies have no policy on managing relationships. These are Qantas Airways, Boral, technology firm Culture Amp, Origin Energy, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Harvey Norman, News Corp and Nine Entertainment, which publishes the Herald and Age. Nine has a code of conduct that covers a broader range of behaviour and prevents staff from having any personal interests that conflict with the business. Qantas has a code of conduct that would apply in all situations including relationships.
Hugh Marks resigned as CEO of Nine after he revealed in the Herald that he was in a consensual relationship with the company’s managing director of commercial, Alexi Baker, who reported to him. He said after five successful years at Nine, it was time to “begin the process of moving on”.
Peter Wilson, former chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute and director of CPA Australia, said the “bonk ban” was tougher than most rules imposed by corporations because the stakes are higher.
“In corporate Australia if a boss and a subordinate have a relationship, one of the two parties move to another role. So it doesn’t mean that the more senior of the two loses the office that they hold in that company,” he said.
Mr Wilson said romantic relationships will continue to be forged in the workplace which are often made up of like-minded people with shared interests.
“The vast majority developing into long-term stable relationships,” he said. “To put a ban on that is problematic because the evidence shows that it forces relationships underground.”
Gerry Harvey, the executive chairman of Harvey Norman, agrees. For the past 38 years he has worked with Katie Page, his wife of 34 years and Harvey Norman chief executive.
Mr Harvey said his relationship with Ms Page was open from the start and “all works fine” even if it can be frustrating at times. He complains his employees tend to take his wife’s side if there is ever an argument.
There are no rules regarding romance in his retailer and he expects employees to maintain professional standards.
“I’m not going to make any bonk rules here,” he said. “I just think it’s overblown and if you try to enforce all these sorts of things, people are just going to do it in secret anyway … We’ve got no policy as such.”
Mr Harvey said he knows things can sometimes go wrong between partners at the workplace. And when they do, he confronts the problem.
“If you are working with your husband, say, and it’s all working really well and the business is going well, we don’t have a problem with that at all,” he said. “But if we feel that the rest of the staff are being affected and it is not good for the business, we are going to say: ‘One of you has got to go. And, you can come and work in a different part of the company, but not together because it’s affecting the business.'”
PwC Australia has a specific “Close Personal Relationships at Work” policy that addresses the potential conflict of interest inherent in relationships involving partners or family members. It requires individuals to disclose if they have a close personal relationship with a colleague, “where they are in a position to make or exercise significant influence on a relevant decision for that person”.
Technology company Xero’s code of conduct does not permit undisclosed intimate or romantic relationships between its staff “because this may lead to an actual or perceived conflict of interest or reflect an imbalance of power”.
Resources giant BHP does not ban relationships or have a specific policy but its Conflicts of Interest Guidance Note “requires staff to report” a close personal relationship with another employee “in your team where that relationship may impact your ability to make impartial and objective decisions”.
At Seven West Media, the workplace behaviour policy says that “mutual attraction between people is not sexual harassment”.
“Conduct which is welcome or consensual is not unlawful, and friendships (sexual or otherwise) which develop between people who meet at work are a private concern,” a spokesman said. “However, consent is something actively given, as opposed to ‘just going along with it’ including because of being too uncomfortable, embarrassed or scared to object openly.”
Chief executive officer at Australian HR Institute Sarah McCann-Bartlett said all companies should have policies that address workplace relationships.
“Having such a policy does not necessarily mean that workplace relationships are not permitted – it is about understanding that workplace relationships may result in conflicts of interest or other issues, and ensuring that potential conflicts or issues are declared and managed appropriately,” she said.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins agrees consensual relationships between co-workers are “not inappropriate per se”.
“But they are a concern for employers in cases where there is a significant power differential and/or where one party has decision-making power over the opportunities, pay and promotion of another,” she said.
With Cara Waters, Supratim Adhikari, Carolyn Cummins, Darren Gray, Charlotte Grieve, Simon Johanson, Emma Koehn, Zoe Samios and Nick Toscano.
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