With most of our days being spent at the workplace, it makes sense to build good relations with one’s colleagues. A happy work environment suits the interests of both employee and employer. Trust, respect, inclusivity and open lines of communication are some of the mechanisms best for building happy and functional relationships in the workplace.

It is also common for colleagues to share office space and communal amenities in the workplace. Sometimes employees will get along so well that the term “office husband/wife” arises.

The case of Amathole District Municipality v CCMA is a good example of what not to do when building those “office husband/wife” relations.

In this matter, an employee and her manager shared an office for approximately two months, after which the manager moved into his own office. This appeared to be the “office husband/wife” relationship usually spoken of. However, it came to light that the relationship went far beyond building a “good” working relationship.

It emerged that the employee and her manager had been engaged in an intimate physical relationship in the office. These physical encounters continued even after the manager moved into his own office. Several email communications between them, speaking in an intimate manner came to light.

Lo and behold, the relationship between the employee and her manager turned sour, allegedly after the employee received an unfavourable performance review.

The employee became vengeful and turned her intimate relationship into a case of alleged sexual harassment by her manager. She told her boyfriend about the relationship, and he insisted that she to report him to the employer. She first reported the allegations to a shop steward, who refused to get involved because, like other employees, he was well aware that the employee and her manager had an intimate relationship, which had clearly turned sour.

After reporting the alleged harassment to the employer, a grievance hearing was convened. In the grievance hearing, no evidence of the sexual harassment could be found. However, the chairperson made several recommendations to prevent this situation from happening again.

The employee was aggrieved with the outcome of the grievance hearing and referred a dispute to the CCMA. The CCMA found that she had been subjected to unwanted sexual conduct and it fined the employer R 150 000.00 for its failure to comply with its duties to eliminate harassment in the workplace in terms of the Employment Equity Act. The Labour Court confirmed the CCMA decision.

The Labour Appeal Court however, overturned the decision, and found that the employee’s communications with her manager (in which she did not deny being involved, but sought to justify her involvement as, amongst other things, a fear of being dismissed) showed that she was not subjected to unwanted sexual conduct, i.e. that she was a willing participant and that her allegations emerged from the souring of the relationship.

With the introduction of the Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace under the EEA, employers are obliged to do all that is reasonably possible to prevent cases of unfair discrimination, in particular offences of a sexual nature. It is accordingly very important for the employer to conduct a thorough (and appropriately sensitive investigation) when such allegations arise. Expert legal advice obtained at the outset can spare an employer from expensive mistakes being made down the line.

Whilst it is true that “a happy wife leads to a happy life”, employees should take care to keep the “office husband/wife” relationship a strictly working relationship!