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Workplace romances are common, so why did one cost Iain Lees-Galloway his job?

The general election is now only weeks away. This year we have seen probably more instability than usual with a number of MPs leaving Parliament. At the same time many personal accusations have been made and sometimes no doubt mistakes made by individual MPs.

Most recently it has emerged that Iain Lees-Galloway, an MP from Palmerston North and former ACC, workplace relations and immigration minister, had a relationship with an individual who had previously worked in his office and had been based in one of his agencies.

For this conduct, he has been sacked from the cabinet, and will not be standing in the election.

Lees-Galloway has not disputed the affair, and admitted the relationship was inappropriate and did not meet expectations, so he had to leave. He also recognised the power imbalance involved and the impact that such a relationship can have on a workplace.

Undoubtedly, not all workplace relationships will result in such dramatic fallout. In fact, romance between co-workers is a common occurrence.

But what is it that makes some relationships a sacking offence?

Just because an affair may have occurred outside of work hours, does not mean that it is not an employment issue. With any workplace romance, it will depend on the employment agreement, the employer's policies and the impact of the romance on the duties and responsibilities of the employee.

In the case of Lees-Galloway, it came down to his powerful position as an MP, and the fact that he held the Workplace Relations portfolio.

When speaking about the situation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explained the concerns, stating: "In undertaking this relationship he has opened himself up to accusations of improperly using his office.

"He has not modelled the behaviour I expect as a minister that is in charge of setting a standard and culture in work places. His actions have led me to lose my confidence in him as a minister."

Lees Galloway was a Member of Parliament but the issues that his case raised have relevance to an employment relationship.

The power imbalance issue, for example, is recognised in law.

But it is not just power imbalances or optics that may concern employers when it comes to office romances, it is also the fallout if things go sour.

A good example of this is a case involving the Department of Corrections and an employee referred to as Mr X.

Mr X formed a relationship with another Corrections employee, Ms Y and they began living together. He then had an affair with a different Corrections employee, Ms Z.

When both relationships ended, Mr X engaged in harassing behaviour towards both women including going to their house, regular texts and calls, and making an offensive post on Facebook.

The Department of Corrections investigated this conduct and dismissed Mr X for serious misconduct.

The Employment Court found that Corrections was entitled to investigate the behaviour even though it was in Mr X's private life because of the impact it had on the workplace, and because it risked bringing the department into disrepute. Mr X lost his case accordingly.

Despite the risk of things going wrong, employers would struggle to ban all workplace romances. Not only does it raise issues of discrimination on the basis of family status, it will probably also be very difficult to manage and enforce.

People working together will often be attracted to each other romantically and there is nothing wrong with that in itself.

However, employers will often benefit by have clear policies in place setting out expectations around workplace relationships, and when these may need to be disclosed to management.

While many workplace relationships will have little impact on work, it is helpful to pre-empt any issues around power imbalances or favouritism, to prevent problems down the line.

What about if a co-worker relationship goes sour? If this results in the parties acting poorly towards each other, an employer can address this as any other case of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

If there are any risks of danger to either party's health and safety in the workplace, this should certainly be taken seriously and addressed.

Managing workplace romances can be difficult, as they can have big impacts on the workplace and the reputation of the employer.

In some cases, like that of Lees-Galloway, the nature of the power dynamics and the optics of the relationship may constitute behaviour serious enough to justify dismissal if he were an employee. In fact he was a member of Parliament and in the end his sacking was a political decision for the prime minister to make.

Employment law is fascinating because it deals with relationships in the workplace. Often these involve powerful human emotions. So Parliament and the courts develop rules setting out the rights of employers and employees.