Tory revelation a reminder of need for workplace relationship policies: experts

As Toronto Mayor John Tory prepares to step down after admitting to an “inappropriate relationship” with a former staffer, experts say preparation is key to protect both employees and employers from the risks such relationships create.

There are no laws in Canada against workplace relationships, so it comes down to company policies to set ground rules, said Lior Samfiru, national co-managing partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.

Guidance about relationships between subordinates and supervisors is especially important because of the inherent power imbalances involved, which can open the possibility that actions may fall under human rights laws.

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The moment there’s an imbalance of power, there’s a presumption under the law that the relationship is not fully consensual, said Tumarkin.

“Because can a relationship truly be consensual, ever, if there’s that imbalance in power?” he said. “Really all it would take is for the person, the subordinate to say that was not consensual, even though it may have gone on for a while, but all that person will have to say that it’s not been consensual, and that’s it. There would be complete liability under human rights laws for the manager, which is why a relationship like that is so problematic and risky.”

He said his understanding is that there was no City of Toronto policy dealing directly with the issue of a relationship between a mayor and staff member, but that a number of municipalities have taken a hard look at their policies in recent years.

Just last fall, Ottawa city council voted to have policies that address relationships between members of council and staff.

Kiljon Shukullari, HR advisory manger at Peninsula Canada, said it’s important to have clear policies in place when bringing employees aboard so that rules and expectations are clear from the start, both on the policies themselves and on how to disclose relationships or report issues.

“It goes a long way, whenever there’s open communication between the two sides, to avoid any type of negative impact,” said Shukullari.

He said some workplaces still take a stricter approach and try to not allow any inter-office relations, but that many take a more lenient approach, acknowledging that it’s fairly common. Either way, the important thing is to have those policies in place and clearly communicated.

“The problem is that if you don’t have anything in place, and you have to be reactive, and usually, especially with things like these, it can escalate pretty quickly. So instead of managing the situation, then you’re you might have a very messy claim on your hands.

By having such rules in place, it also gives management or the board of directors more options to take actions. The failure to disclose a relationship was grounds enough for McDonald’s Corp.’s board of directors to fire former chief executive Steve Easterbrook in 2019.

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