I had an affair with a workplace colleague who is lower-ranked but did not report to me. When it broke off, sexual harassment was alleged. The company is investigating. What is my recourse?
THE FIRST ANSWER
Associate, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, Toronto
It is not prohibited to have a consensual romantic relationship with a lower-ranking co-worker.
However, sexual harassment is prohibited by human-rights and health-and-safety legislation and, where an allegation of sexual harassment is made, an employer has an obligation to take it seriously and investigate.
I would recommend being as open as possible with your employer during the investigation process, and provide any information to help establish that your relationship was consensual and interactions were welcomed by your colleague.
Sexual harassment investigations are difficult and often the results of such investigations come down to credibility.
This underscores the importance of being honest with your employer.
If you get caught in a lie – even a small or inconsequential one – it may lead your employer to question your honesty.
Also, had you disclosed your relationship to your employer while it was still in the "happy phase," this would have helped you to show the relationship was consensual.
Unfortunately, even if your employer agrees that your relationship was consensual and the complaint is dismissed, your job may still be in jeopardy.
If your relationship with your colleague affects the harmony of the workplace or your ability to perform your job, your employer may determine that you both cannot remain with the company.
And, as the more senior employee, you would likely be the one who gets dismissed. In the words of Angelina Jolie to Brad Pitt in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith: "Happy endings are just stories that haven't finished yet."
THE SECOND ANSWER
President and CEO, Spectrum Organizational Development Inc., Toronto
The funny thing about secrets is that they never end up staying a secret.
When you started your affair, both of you should have known there was a chance of a less-than-ideal outcome if the relationship came to an end.
Your best course of action is to seek legal counsel, and let the investigation play out – your days of hiding are over.
As both of you are employees, the company has an obligation to protect its employees, and the company itself from further litigation.
Assuming there was no actual sexual harassment, just hurt feelings, your employer may simply note the situation in your file and move on.
However, if your company has a policy against relationships between co-workers, you may be subject to further disciplinary actions.
Now that the secret is out, you owe it to your employer to maintain your work standards, and to not let this situation ruin your credibility more than it already has.