Otago University has issued a new policy for staff-student relationships following economics lecturer Clayton Weatherston’s murder of student Sophie Elliott in 2008.
The University now ‘strongly discourages’ staff entering into intimate personal relationships with students, particularly a student for whom they have responsibility.
Weatherston had been in a relationship with Elliot for around six months, but Elliot had broken it off a few weeks prior to Weatherston fatally attacking her at her parents home.
The standards were revised by the university’s Ethical Behaviour Committee following 12 months of consultation.
There is obviously no way the university can ban academic staff having relationships with students. The ‘strongly discourages’ wording is about all they can do.
Love (and lust) usually has no regard for behavioural guidelines. In fact in an academic environment to ban something is often an added attraction for some to pursue it. Forbidden fruit often requires no marketing.
At best this is a mitigating action by Otago University to highlight to staff the potential unspecified hazards associated with student-staff relationships. Some of a more cynical persuation might suggest it is something of a butt covering exercise.
The university has specific requirements under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 to where praticable, provide a safe environment for staff and students free form harm in the broadest sense.
Regardless of the motives of the university, none of the parties involved could realistically have predicted that an established member of staff would take the life of a student in such horrific circumstances.
This is a cautionary tale for some employers who may be aware of details of an employees medical or personal history but refuse to intervene in an inter-staff romantic relationship that may have the potential to endanger a staff members health and safety.
This is a tricky area and every situation has a different set of facts, but if we are an employer we need to put our heads into the future and ask ourselves with hindsight if there was anything we could have done to prevent a tragedy happening.
It is better to ask for professional advice to clarify an employers obligations early in the piece rather than make assumptions about the limits of employer responsibility about workplace romance and end up with a mess either through doing nothing or doing something seriously inappropriate (in the employment relations sense).
The Employers and Manufacturers Association have skilled lawyers who can advise members on employment law and staff relationships. This is not a blind plug for the EMA. I have seen first hand just how useful concise legal advice can be in protecting both the interests of employers and staff from potentially costly and sometimes tragic decisions made in the workplace.