5.1 Individual responsibility
Each employee, regardless of seniority, is responsible for managing their own conflict of interest risk within the relationship.
The risks of potential conflicts of interest are likely to be heightened for officers in senior leadership positions. Employees in positions of leadership should in particular be mindful of their responsibility to model appropriate behaviour in line with the public sector values. They should also be cognisant of the power imbalance that exists between different staffing levels.
5.3 Where only one person discloses a consensual personal relationship
In the instance where only one person in a relationship makes a declaration, a disclosure officer should seek to have a supportive conversation with both employees (either together or separately). This discussion should clearly outline whether the relationship is considered to constitute a conflict of interest and the requirement for employees to disclose a relationship.
The discussion should highlight that any measures taken will not discriminate or unfairly impact upon a person’s employment.
Should only one employee assert that a relationship is in place, a management plan should be collaboratively prepared that seeks to remove the conflict of interest identified for this person. The management plan should avoid adverse impacts (case studies are at Appendix 1).
5.4 A third party reports a relationship
A third party may report a personal consensual relationship in the workplace. A report of this kind should be managed in the same way as any other potential conflict of interest report – This includes that the identity of the third party be limited to a strict ‘needs to know’ basis.
An organisation should seek to meet with both employees (either together or separately) and through a supportive discussion clearly outline the conflict of interest policy and the requirement for employees to disclose consensual personal relationships where a direct hierarchical relationship is in place.
This approach provides the opportunity for an employer to re-affirm the conflict of interest policy to employees and for employees to respond in a confidential and supportive environment.
5.5 Relationships across organisations
Employees who work in different organisations (for example, in different departments) are not required to disclose a consensual personal relationship. However, it is important for employees in this situation to be mindful of their obligations under the code of conduct. Personal interests (including the interests of family members, friends or associates) must not influence, or be perceived as influencing, the role of public sector employees.
5.6 Former consensual personal relationships
A risk-based approach should be taken when considering a situation where an employee works with someone they once had a relationship with that has now ended. Where a direct hierarchical relationship exists, employees should declare the former relationship as it could represent a perceived conflict of interest.
The management plan developed should be risk-based and recognise that as the relationship was historical a lower level of risk would be likely. While each relationship should be considered on its own merits former relationships should not generally require changes to reporting or supervisory arrangements.
Former consensual personal relationships without direct hierarchical reporting lines do not need to be disclosed. However, should the risk of conflict not be manageable, discloser should still be required.
5.7 Reducing the likelihood of adverse consequences
Keeping relationship information confidential where possible will reduce the likelihood of employees experiencing adverse responses from colleagues. This is important in light of research indicating that hierarchical workplace relationship can negatively impact the more subordinate employee’s career advancement. Since the subordinate employee in the relationship is commonly female, this will likely have implications for equal employment opportunity.
A disclosure officer to whom a relationship is disclosed should communicate to the employee that they are available to discuss any issues as they arise. They should also be mindful of professional problems that may arise if the personal relationship breaks down e.g. the potential for negative bias.
5.8 Sexual harassment
Victorian Public Service employers are under a continual duty to prevent sexual harassment and to respond swiftly and appropriately to any allegations that concern matters relating to sexual harassment, discrimination or bullying. For information on Victorian Public Service employers’ obligations in this regard, see the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission’s Guideline: Sexual harassment – complying with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
A relationship is not considered consensual if the subordinate employee feels compelled to consent to a personal relationship because of the inherent power imbalance in the professional relationship. Departments should have robust policies and procedures in place to prevent, report and respond to sexual harassment.
In accordance with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 discrimination is prohibited in the context of employment. An employer must not discriminate against an employee by, inter alia:
- denying or limiting access to opportunities for promotion, transfer, training or any other benefit connected with employment;
- dismissing or otherwise terminating the employee’s employment; or
- subjecting the employee to any other detriment.
Discrimination is prohibited in relation to a range of attributes including lawful sexual activity. In devising policies for minimising risks associated with personal relationships, Victorian Public Service employers must comply with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
5.11 Contractors and consultants
The Model Policy applies to all workplace participants. This includes: employees, contractors, consultants, labour hire and any individuals or groups undertaking activity for or on behalf of the organisation.
Contractors, consultants and labour hire are required to disclose a personal consensual relationship with a direct hierarchical relationship to a disclosure officer in line with the policy. It is important to note however, that contractors, consultants and labour hire are not organisational employees. As such, they should also discuss the matter with their employer (i.e. Hudson or Hays recruitment services) where a proposed management plan can be prepared to remove a conflict of interest. All management plans should be agreed with the organisation before they are enacted.