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What are the risks of a romance in a hospital, practice or clinic setting?

Romances between nurses, midwives and their health practitioner colleagues are the lifeblood of countless television dramas, from A Country Practice to The Flying Doctors, All Saints and Grey’s Anatomy.

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In reality, while romances in healthcare settings are common albeit often without all the intense melodrama you see on TV, there can be professional and legal ramifications from workplace dating for both health practitioners and their employers.

While there is no part of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law that references issues relating to a nurse or midwife conducting a workplace relationship, nurses and midwives are required to adhere to the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia’s (NMBA) Codes of Conduct.

A NMBA spokesperson says the revised Codes, now open for public consultation, cover areas such as bullying and harassment.

Nurses and midwives embarking on a workplace relationship must ensure they continue to abide by the legal requirements, professional behaviour and conduct expectations outlined in the Codes.

“Speaking in general terms, the NMBA will hold nurses to account who fail to meet their professional obligations, and will take regulatory action to limit their registration if their health, conduct or performance fails to meet the expected standards,” the spokesperson says.

 “It would (be) up to the nurses’ professional judgement to determine what is appropriate, in line with NMBA’s standards – and in addition to this I am aware that most employers have policies in place to provide guidance in this area.”

Professional pitfalls

Workplace romances can lead to accusations of distracted patient care and favouritism, especially when it comes to pay rises, promotions and workplace opportunities, and can also spark gossip and resentment from colleagues.

And when relationships crumble, the workplace environment can be uncomfortable or, at worst, hostile.

The breakdown of relationships can lead to allegations of harassment and sexual harassment. It can also prompt an employee to resign, lead to disciplinary action, or even termination.

Andrew Jewell, Principal Lawyer at employment lawyers McDonald Murholme, says it’s important for employees entering into a workplace relationship to consider the legal risks.

Mr Jewell says workplace relationships can bring about perceptions of bias from co-workers.

“It can affect the reputation of someone who is perceived to be getting favourable treatment but it could also be a form of misconduct for a supervisor,” he says.

“If there is an allegation that someone receives a promotion and then the allegation is that they were biased because of a private relationship, that could be seen as a potential disciplinary issue.”

Mr Jewell says legal cases often arise when the personal relationship dissolves and begins to negatively impact on an individual’s professional life.

“If there is a break-up, that can often affect the working relationship. I’ve seen sexual harassment claims and I’ve seen bullying claims arising out of relationship break-ups,” Mr Jewell says.

“The most common example we have is where there is that break-up and then there’s a nastiness in the relationship, and that spills over into work and becomes bullying and harassment issues in the workplace.

In one case, Mr Jewell says a workplace relationship ended with the male then deciding to send messages to his former girlfriend.

“The male was sending messages to the female and they were the normal sort of messages that you might expect from an ex-boyfriend to his ex-girlfriend but then she made an allegation of sexual harassment because they had met at work, they had dated, and they worked at the same working place,” Mr Jewell says.

“I think that it’s really important for employees who date to remember when they break-up it might become a workplace issue.”

How to handle it

If you want to pursue a relationship in the workplace, it’s a good idea to first consider your employer’s policies. More employers are now creating policies around workplace relationships to ensure their organisation is not adversely affected.

Some employers have workplace relationship policies that outline the requirement for the disclosure of workplace relationships. These policies may also detail a range of strategies, such as moving employees involved in workplace relationships to separate departments, to cover the potential for any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.

Other employers also have non-disclosure policies, outlining steps and disciplinary action for staff who fail to disclose their relationship, especially when workplace relationships have the potential to generate conflicts of interest.

Mr Jewell advises employees to review their organisation’s policies and to disclose the relationship with HR, particularly when the relationship involves a supervisor and their subordinate employee.

“The safest thing is to notify your employer when something becomes serious,” he says.

“So apart from looking at the policies that are in place, I’d say unless there’s a reason not to, I would err on the side of advising your employer just so you can’t be said to have been hiding anything.

“Some organisations can take it very seriously. When things get very tense in a workplace and if it is a stressful situation, an employer might have a perception that you wouldn’t be as clear thinking if your personal partner is involved,” he adds.

“That is an important word as well - perception. It’s not always that there is bias or there is an issue but from an employee’s perspective my advice would be to err on the side of telling your employer so that they can just remove that as an issue.”

When it comes to workplace relationships, it’s always best to be professional - keep your private life out of your working life.

Avoid public displays of affection, don’t divulge confidential work information to your partner, and avoid using work technology, such as emails, to communicate personal information.

In the event of a relationship break-up, steer clear of discussing your former partner with your work colleagues.

And if it’s an uncomfortable working environment, it may help to advise your supervisor, who may be able to move you to different shifts or another department.

Mr Jewell says employees should seek advice if they have any concerns.

“In the event that they don’t want to disclose their relationship, and they feel that they need to do so, I think that might be a convenient time to get that advice - to basically suss out if there would be any disciplinary issues associated with not disclosing a relationship,” he says.

“Otherwise, after a break-up, if anyone feels uncomfortable at work I think that’s a good time to get some advice because the advice might be that you have to make a legal claim.

“The advice also might be just to let your employer know a little bit more about what’s going on because in these private-work crossover situations, it’s not often as simple as - this is a legal claim.

“More importantly, if anyone feels uncomfortable at work there’s often a legal avenue.”


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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords