Have you ever had a relationship at work? When you think about the amount of time that people spend in work, the role that it plays in our lives, it would seem almost inevitable that relationships would occur. Yet for decades, organisations have been uncomfortable with the idea.
Early in my career, when a relationship occurred between two people in the same unit or team, one was required to move to a different part of the business and if no alternative job was found they were dismissed for “some other substantial reason”. It always seemed slightly perverse to me and had the added consequence of disproportionately impacting on female employees (invariably the junior employee and therefore the one most frequently easier to redeploy). A few years later I was in a position to remove the policy.
Like many of the aspects of our work, a seemingly simple solutions papers over a world of complexity and, I’d argue, potential opportunity. I was quite surprised recently to learn that many organisations still had policies and procedures for managing relationships in the workplace. Which feels slightly arcane and counter to our drive to connect workplaces with human emotion and behaviour.
(Now at this point, I should be clear that I’m talking about consensual relationships – I am not talking about abuses of power, harassment or any other untoward behaviour, which are a completely different topic and one for another day).
Let’s assume that two people fall in love whilst happening to be employed in the same workplace. Are they really going to not fall in love because of a policy? It seems highly unlikely. So we have to assume that this will happen. Now, let’s assume that we say that they can’t be employed together whilst in a relationship. Well there you are either forcing them to lie, or for one or both of them to leave – which means potentially the two people YOU hired as being necessary for the organisation are now gone.
So we go for the middle ground and we say that you have to tell us if you’re having a relationship, but that it is ok. Which feels convenient, but what about if you don’t want to talk about your relationship status, because you’re a highly private individual, you’re lesbian, gay or bi and uncomfortably about this being known at work, or you’re having an “additional relationship”. Are you really going to declare that?
The argument goes that we need to know so that we can be aware of conflicts of interest or potential abuse of power. But do they only happen in sexual relationships? Have friendships never led to anything untoward? So should we have a policy on friendships in the workplace too? That would put an end to the Gallup Q12 for a start.
Like most things in the world of work and culture the solution starts with an “it depends”. And we know that “it depends” makes for bad policy making. My personal view is you’re better off accepting that these things happen, develop a strong and effective approach to “dignity at work”, build trust, transparency and openness and manage problems by exception.
I discussed this recently with others for The Bottom Line. You can hear the recording here.