Skip to main content

When does a workplace relationship cross the line? This is what experts say


On Friday night, John Tory, who has been married to Barbara Hackett for 40-plus years, revealed he had a relationship with a former staffer during the pandemic.

In his announcement, Tory called the affair a “serious error in judgment,” and said it developed “in a way that did not meet the standards to which I hold myself as mayor and as a family man.”

The affair came as a “shock” to many former and current city councillors, leaving some to wonder whether or not the relationship crossed a line.

For Gillian Hnatiw, Toronto lawyer and principal of feminist litigation firm Gillian Hnatiw & Co., Tory’s relationship doesn’t strike an ethics or morality issue, but rather questions whether there was an abuse of power and judgment.

“I think that if there were privileges or perquisites sort of bestowed on her, that [Tory] used or used his power and influence to misuse city funds, etcetera, then that would give rise to some legitimate ethical questions,” Hnatiw said.

“But from my perspective – the lens that I bring to this – is really the question of whether or not these kinds of relationships can ever be appropriate in the workplace, given the gross imbalance of power and the close proximity within which they worked with each other.”

Hnatiw also says the age difference – as the Toronto Star reports, the staffer was 31 years old, making it a 37-year age gap between the two – and the economic wealth and connections are factors to consider in this case.

“The things I tend to look at when I do these cases is sort of the opportunities to exploit that power to cause harm in the future,” Hnatiw told CTV News Toronto. “These relationships may seem consensual at the outset – and sometimes they genuinely are – but lawyers like me tend to get involved when they go south a little bit, and the subordinate in the relationship realizes that certainly their professional life [and] often their career path is at the mercy of a person with whom they’re now trying to end a relationship.”

The City of Toronto’s Code of Conduct for Members of Council does not explicitly have a policy that prohibits workplace relationships for councillors – but it notes “members should perform their duties and arrange their private affairs in a manner that promotes public confidence and bears close public scrutiny.”


Amy Nicole Baker, a psychology professor at the University of New Haven, told CTV News Toronto if an employer is considering starting a workplace relationship with someone who reports to them, then they need to think of the reasons why they are pursuing it in the first place due to the “problematic” connotations these types of relationships can have.

“Sit down with your heart and ask yourself, ‘What are my motives for pursuing this relationship?’” she said.

Then, Baker says it is imperative to be upfront and transparent about the relationship.

“Secrecy tends to be corrosive, both in organizational life and relationships, so the degree to which you can avoid secrecy, actually will make the relationship more healthy,” she said.”

In Hnatiw’s candid view, workplace relationships pursued by those who are in a position of power are “best avoided,” echoing Baker’s sentiments on the problems secrecy can bring.

“Part of why relationships like this can go bad and cause harm to the subordinate is because they are sort of at the mercy of that person’s discretion,” Hnatiw said.

Fiona Martyn, associate at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP employment law firm, says – no matter what the work dynamic or how serious the relationship is – it is “always advisable to disclose a relationship.”

If the relationship ends and one of the parties involved starts to harass the other, since it has already been disclosed that there was a relationship between the two, then an employer – regardless of what they perceive to be the merits of that complaint – will have an obligation to look into that complaint, Martyn says.

“There’s what are known as reprisal protections in the Occupational Health and Safety Act legislation that basically prevents the employee from getting punished, or terminated, or suspended as a result of bringing forward with that complaint,” she said. Top Stories

Stay Connected