What's Wrong with Consensual Office Relationships?
Increasingly, companies are moving their Codes of Conduct from “discouraging” consensual intimate relationships between employees to prohibiting them. Rather than allow them to remain clandestine, companies are asking people to report such relationships. Why? What’s wrong with a love relationship between two consenting adults who also work for the same company?
Consider the contractual relationship of employment. The employer pays employees and expects a standard of behavior. This standard includes acting with integrity, putting the company’s interests first, following the company’s policies, and not engaging in activities that reflect poorly on or could harm the company.
It’s Not Just Two Consenting Adults
When two employees of the same company (or even between a company and its supplier or a customer) become intimately involved, the company becomes an uninvited third party in the relationship. Note that the company didn’t ask to be involved, the decision was made by the other two. If either of the two are married, marriage contracts are involved as well. When Stanford Dean of the Graduate School of Business Garth Saloner and a professor became intimately involved, Saloner notified the Provost, and they agreed to remove responsibilities related to his new partner from his domain. Her ex-spouse who also worked under Saloner didn’t see the situation as that neatly compartmentalized, and the university became embroiled in litigation. Because the organization has little control over how the participants manage their combined work-social lives, it can be left paying for the relationship in legal fees and negative publicity.
Lack of Integrity
Aside from the excitement of a shared secret, why does the couple want to hide their relationship? One reason that people don’t report their relationships to their employers is that they are also cheating on a spouse or partner. Another reason: the work relationship is mutually considered recreational; they claim they don’t want to hurt others. Another: they want time to sort it out. Alternately, financial or custody reasons might be involved. None of these constitute acting with true integrity—as informing spouses of the relationship would exemplify-- which gives the company reason to question their integrity in their work, particularly if the company has a policy against what they are doing.
In an employment contract, you are expected to put the interests of the company ahead of your personal gain; ideally, the two work together, and your good work for the company furthers your career. Unfortunately, an intimate relationship with a work-related partner can cloud judgements or even lead to outright unethical or illegal behaviors. When Mark Hurd was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, he repeatedly used company funds to take the same consultant, a romantic target, to dinner. As well, he may have disclosed information about a pending acquisition to the consultant, exposing the company to potential for insider trading. The company would like to know if pillowtalk can lead to an SEC investigation. If an executive chooses to layoff some employees over others, the company will want to be sure that the executive’s choices aren’t clouded by their relationship.
It’s All Great Until It Ends Badly
While colleagues might initially be happy for the love birds, few think ahead to what happens when the relationship ends. If the relationship ends on the rocks, it may create unnecessary drama and subterfuge at work, reducing productivity and focus.
Power can be sexy, but power differentials are more likely to create the appearance of or an actual disparity of treatment. Two people might start out as colleagues and then find one promoted over the other. Google’s General Counsel David Drummond had an affair with a subordinate, who to avoid a conflict, was then transferred to sales without prior experience in the area. The higher up an organizational structure one of the parties is, the greater the potential for adverse publicity or worse legal outcomes and costs. Likewise, if a superior is compromised by trying to keep a relationship secret, it exposes him to the potential for blackmail, which could also involve the company.
To the extent that a person, particularly a senior executive, is attracted to a specific gender, that personal preference excludes all other genders from the opportunity to have a similar relationship. To the extent that person spends more time with their love interest, the love interest will have more influence on their work decisions. While the company might benefit from synergy of the two, access denied is unequal treatment for all the other employees who don’t have the same opportunities.
A common refrain nowadays is: “People spend so much time at work. Shouldn’t we just expect some of them to form romantic relationships?” Ironically, heterosexual men mostly seem to manage to avoid intimate relationships with other heterosexual men, despite working long hours with each other. This preference exclusivity is true for other genders as well. Organizations expect managers to act with good judgement, self-control and integrity in all types of situations, not abandon their senses based on sexual attraction. Will there be people who don’t always exhibit good judgement and self-control? Yes. Are they the people you want running a company? No. It is easier today than ever before to meet people who do not work with you. Do that instead.