Valen­tine’s Day in the Work­place (2024 Edition)

Valen­tine’s Day, the cel­e­bra­tion of romance and roman­tic love, takes place annu­al­ly on Feb­ru­ary 14.

While many assid­u­ous­ly avoid what they con­sid­er to be a crass com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of inti­mate rela­tion­ships, oth­ers embrace with rel­ish the oppor­tu­ni­ties it presents to either affirm or pur­sue romance,

A few years ago exten­sive media cov­er­age (usu­al­ly with accom­pa­ny­ing com­men­tary to the effect of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone mad’ or nan­ny state cen­sor­ship’) was giv­en to a speech code at the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Orleans, the terms of which could ren­der some sug­ges­tive Valen­tine’s Day cards to be evi­dence of sex­u­al harassment. 

While no one wants to be accused of being a killjoy in mat­ters of the heart, look­ing at it objec­tive­ly, can Valen­tine’s Day be an issue that needs to be man­aged in the workplace?

There are some employ­ees who might assume that the con­ven­tions of Valen­tine’s Day, includ­ing an expres­sion or dec­la­ra­tion of affec­tion for a col­league, pro­vide a free pass’ or immu­ni­ty in any dis­ci­pli­nary process, as if the cul­tur­al tra­di­tions of the day trump applic­a­ble legal principle.

Of course, this is not so. The spec­tre of sex­u­al harass­ment looms large for the unwary.

Sex­u­al harass­ment is gen­er­al­ly defined as:

…an unwel­come sex­u­al advance, unwel­come request for sex­u­al favour or oth­er unwel­come con­duct of a sex­u­al nature which, in the cir­cum­stances, a rea­son­able per­son, aware of those cir­cum­stances would antic­i­pate the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the per­son would be offend­ed, humil­i­at­ed or intimidated”.

Some com­mon­ly cit­ed exam­ples of sex­u­al harass­ment include repeat­ed or inap­pro­pri­ate pri­vate invi­ta­tions to go out on dates or sex­u­al­ly sug­ges­tive com­ments or jokes.

If the con­duct is unwel­come and has a sex­u­al ele­ment (as many Valen­tine’s Day cards and gifts do) then there is a risk it could con­sti­tute sex­u­al harass­ment. While cas­es of this kind very much turn on their own facts, it is high­ly unlike­ly that a cul­tur­al tra­di­tion’ defence alone will be effective.

As such, unless the Valen­tine’s Day ges­ture is giv­en in a rela­tion­ship, or it is cer­tain the recip­i­ent will give an affir­ma­tive response or not be offend­ed, then it could be unwise. 

Fur­ther, under recent amend­ments to the Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act 1984 (Cth) (SDA), it is unlaw­ful for one per­son to sub­ject anoth­er per­son in a work­place to a hos­tile work envi­ron­ment’ on the ground of sex. This could include some gen­er­al con­duct under­tak­en in the cause of Valen­tine’s Day (not nec­es­sar­i­ly direct­ed at one per­son), if a rea­son­able per­son, hav­ing regard to all of the cir­cum­stances, would have antic­i­pat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the con­duct would result in the work­place envi­ron­ment being offen­sive, intim­i­dat­ing or humil­i­at­ing to anoth­er per­son by rea­son of the sex of that oth­er per­son (or char­ac­ter­is­tics that apper­tain gen­er­al­ly, or are gen­er­al­ly imput­ed, to the sex of that oth­er person). 

This rais­es the ques­tion, what is the role of the employer?

Employ­ers are vic­ar­i­ous­ly liable for sex­u­al harass­ment unless they have tak­en all rea­son­able steps’ to pre­vent it from tak­ing place.

Fur­ther, after the recent amend­ments to the SDA, employ­ers now have a pos­i­tive duty to elim­i­nate sex­u­al dis­crim­i­na­tion. and must take rea­son­able and pro­por­tion­ate steps’ to elim­i­nate, as far as pos­si­ble, among oth­er things, sex­u­al harass­ment and a hos­tile work environment. 

The cul­ture of the work­place should inform the prac­ti­cal approach to be adopt­ed by the employer.

While a Valen­tine’s Day’ warn­ing email dis­trib­uted to all employ­ees, like the type that is sent before work­place Christ­mas par­ties, might be some­what overzeal­ous, if there is an appar­ent risk of some employ­ees using the day to take lib­er­ties that are incon­sis­tent with sex­u­al harass­ment or oth­er cur­rent poli­cies then there could be val­ue in remind­ing employ­ees of their obligations.

Giv­en the way courts very care­ful­ly parse the lan­guage of sex­u­al harass­ment poli­cies, it might also be worth con­sid­er­ing updat­ing rel­e­vant poli­cies to include a ref­er­ence to con­duct on Valen­tine’s Day, lest it be sub­se­quent­ly argues a fail­ure to specif­i­cal­ly men­tion it is a lacu­na lead­ing to con­clu­sion the employ­er has not tak­en all rea­son­able steps’ to avoid vic­ar­i­ous lia­bil­i­ty, or rea­son­able and pro­por­tion­ate steps’ to com­ply with the new pos­i­tive duty under the recent amend­ments to the SDA