John Tory, Workplace Romances and Power Imbalances

Written by on February 13, 2023 in Employment Law Blog, Employment Law Issues
Workplace Romances

Published in Canadian HR Reporter

By Ron Minken and Tanya (Tejpreet) Sambi

John Tory has announced his intention to resign as Mayor of Toronto after the news broke on February 10, 2023 that he had an affair with his 31-year old member of staff. In a letter to the Toronto Star, Mr. Tory’s lawyer has stated that Mr. Tory “developed a relationship with an employee in his office” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the news of the affair continues to dominate the news cycle, many have asked whether the affair was illegal or prohibited, and whether all workplace romances are illegal. 

Is having a workplace romance illegal?

There is no legislation or common law rule that prohibits a romantic workplace relationship. In fact, some people may meet their significant other or partner at work. A workplace romance between two consenting adults, who are colleagues, is typically not frowned upon. 

It becomes a problem when the relationship develops between a superior, in this case Mayor Tory and the staffer, who reports to the Mayor. There is almost always a power imbalance. For example, Mayor Tory has the power and ability to discipline the staffer and also fire her. This may result in an employee not feeling comfortable saying “no” to their boss, for fear of retribution, such as being fired. This is still so even if the staffer initiated the relationship, as the staffer may wish to end the relationship, but may not feel comfortable doing so. 

A workplace romance between a boss and their employee may also result in favouritism towards the staffer, which may result in disgruntled feelings amongst the staffer’s co-workers. Moreover, there may be a slippery slope from a consenting workplace romance to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. This puts the City at risk of a Human Rights claim and litigation against and defence costs which could be a few hundred thousand.

Should Mayor Tory resign?

In deciding whether Mayor Tory should resign, one must consider what the result would achieve, especially given he is an elected representative and just starting his third term in office. As the staffer is no longer working for the City, will the past power imbalance and risk of allegations of harassment hamper his ability to continue acting as Mayor of Toronto? How will the disruption of his work impact the City? 

Should an employer prohibit a workplace romance?

There are serious consequences that may arise from a workplace romance, such as a decrease in morale as a result of displays of favouritism, abuse of power, conflict of interest, and even allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Further, another consequence is reputational damage to the employer, in this case the City of Toronto.

An employer may wish to mitigate these consequences by implementing a workplace policy that places restrictions on romantic relationships in the office, such as prohibiting romantic workplace relationships between superiors and their direct reports, or requiring disclosure of any romantic workplace relationship to a member of the management team or Human Resources.

What are some steps an employer should implement to protect its employees?

  1. Implement a workplace policy on romantic relationships within the workplace, so all employees are aware of what is permitted and what is prohibited. 
  2. Educate employees on the workplace policy for romantic relationships and educate them on how to report any misconduct.
  3. Implement a conflict of interest policy to prevent certain activities that could damage the company and its reputation due to a romantic relationship.
  4. Require employees to disclose if and when they enter into a romantic relationship with another employee.
  5. Require all employees to undergo training on sexual harassment, including what it consists of and the various means of reporting sexual harassment / assault.  
  6. Speak to an employment lawyer today to minimize liability and risks within the workplace.

Takeaways on Workplace Romances

While a romantic workplace relationship is not illegal, it may be problematic for both employees and employers. It can lead to a slew of problems, including workplace harassment, abuse of power, favouritism, retaliations, and sexual harassment / sexual assault. Employers should implement a workplace policy and conflict of interest policy and educate the employees on the contents. Clearly define the expectations regarding romantic workplace relationships, both between co-workers and also between superiors and their reports.

Contact Minken Employment Lawyers Today

Are you an employer or an employee who is facing problems with a workplace romance? If so, contact us today to speak to an experienced employment lawyer. We can be reached at: 905-477-7011 | Toll-Free: 1-866-477-7011 | contact@minken.com.

For regular updates and alerts please sign up for our Newsletter to receive up-to-date Employment Law information, including new legislation and Court decisions impacting your workplace. 

Please note that this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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