Romantic relationships in the workplace

It's a legit relationship, so why is it anybody else's business?

There has been a lot of debate recently around the impact and consequences of romantic workplace relationships. In the AFL two senior managers lost their jobs after consensual relationships were exposed. At Channel 7 the CEO and a former EA have been keeping the Courts and Twitter readers busy for a year or more. And at QBE the CEO had his short-term-incentive (STI) docked by $550K after he disclosed he had hooked up with his EA – btw, they remain in a serious ongoing relationship!

People have been having ‘office/work relationships’ since, well let’s just say it’s been a looooooooong time. Not much has changed about people and it is unlikely that much will change into the future. However, what has changed, is how these relationships are viewed in the public domain. In the modern workplace, we focus on trust built around transparency and open communication. Not only is it easier for the information to be disseminated in this day and age, what people expect of their leaders is different (JFK, Bill Clinton, Bob Hawke anybody???). We expect our leaders to be impartial and not have favourites. ‘Office relationships’ fundamentally undermine these ideals.

Impact at work?

Moving away from the tawdry reporting of other people’s lives (if you like that stuff, buy a glossy magazine or watch the Batchelor), is this stuff relevant in the workplace? More so, how can people lose their job and their big $ bonuses over consensual relationships? And, how can this be anyone else’s business???

This does NOT mean that these relationships are banned! 16% of people meet their significant other at work and there is nothing wrong with that, given how much time we spend there!!! However, if there is to be an impact on the organisation, such as being a personal relationship when there is a managerial relationship or being in a personal relationship when making a decision about a promotion, then the decision on how that should be handled at work is not yours to make. The same way you can’t enter into a supplier agreement with your husband’s service company without disclosing the relationship. In the recent QBE case the CEO self-disclosed to the Board, however they determined that he waited too long to disclose and therefore he had breached Code of Conduct.

What is often lost in this debate, is that this holds true for a lot of other types of relationships. Parents managing children, cousins or other extended family members. This is a constant source of friction especially in regional and country locations.

Culture and Conflict of Interest

Trust, culture and risk all are tied up in perceptions of fairness and impartiality. If a person is managing someone they have a relationship with, it is almost impossible to avoid the perception of bias. Whether there is bias or not - not relevant – it’s how it MAY be perceived that is important. Those looking on, teammates, suppliers, other departments, the media, will all be making assumptions. This idea is now so widely accepted that it has been recognised at law! See the case of Mihalopoulos v Westpac Banking Corporation [2015] FWC 2087.

Further, as we know, when these types of relationship flourish or become prevalent in a workplace there is usually a lot of other poor cultural elements going on. ‘In-groups’ and ‘out-groups’, strong hierarchies are established and junior people often feel threatened and unsupported. All of this flies in the face of the modern workplace culture most organisations are looking to establish and that modern employees are expecting from their employer.

We had an investigation where due to romantic relationships going sour one project lead was refusing to manage an overseas project if the other was listed on the project team. These were high valued high performing employees with specialised skills.

So how do you manage the risk?  

Many businesses today have policies that require disclosure of any romantic or intimate relationships or occurrences. Often they are not banned, just, you need to let someone know about them so if necessary countermeasures can be put in place. It is just another real or potential conflict of interest that employees and employers need to navigate.

Is it fair?

So, is this fair? From a personal perspective, almost certainly not. From a business perspective, it is about setting and supporting culture whilst understanding and managing risk. Does this mean I agree with the decisions of the AFL and QBE, drop me a line and we’ll discuss the specifics.

The Zalt Group works with individuals & organisations who want to restore and strengthen workplace relationships.

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