Tinder. Match. Bumble. Work?


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People are people.  And relationships can build over time.  So, it’s natural that a more personal, or even intimate relationship can easily develop at work.  But why, how and when should the company get involved?

Well, let’s first tackle the why.

And yes, I know the first thing that generally comes to everyone’s mind is the specter of sexual harassment, or allegations of harassment.  And sure, that’s absolutely the elephant in the room.

So if you’re in any type of managerial position, my advice is to avoid intimate work relationships at all costs.

You see, sexual harassment isn’t about sex – it’s about power. So when you have two people, at different levels in the organization, with different levels of power – well then it gets really easy to see how the issue of possible sexual harassment can come into play.

If one person in that relationship has the possibility of power over the other – and no, it doesn’t have to be their direct boss.  Maybe Sally is part of the leadership team that can make recommendations about company strategy, and Mark is lower on the org chart.  Well, Sally’s recommendation very well might have impact on Mark – either positive or negative.  And the simple fact that her actions could possibly impact Mark – well, that’s a problem.

And even if Sally is scrupulous about the decisions she makes – you also have to deal with the optics – the appearance of favoritism.  After all, as I’ve said many times before – everyone is always watching everything.  And if you think the team doesn’t know what’s going on – that’s it some big secret….well, all I can say is – it’s not.

What’s that saying – ‘two people can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.’

And then again, unfortunately all too often, relationships end – sometimes badly, and rarely well.  And that means, feelings are involved – usually hurt feelings.  And that can mean that something that was just fine then, isn’t feeling so hunky dory now.  And that can give rise to harassment allegations too.

Now, none of this is to say that sometimes it actually isn’t intended sexual harassment; someone is using their power over the other person to garner sexual favors.  But if you’re Sally, you also have to remember that Mark may feel like he has no choice, because you’re in a power position.  He may not directly say anything to Sally, because he feels like he’s in a no-win situation.  And it may end up as a complaint directly to HR … or his attorney.

So see, if you’re a Sally, just don’t’ go there.  Again, you may be thinking one thing – and Mark may be thinking another.  Or it may be fine, while the relationship is going well, but if or when it ends, you might find yourself on the wrong side of things.

OK, that’s one huge issue with work relationships.  But not all work relationships end in harassment allegations, in fact most don’t.  And, while that’s a good thing – there are other problems.

…Two people in an intimate relationship, on a team of three – you can see why that third person could easily feel like, well a third wheel.

Work relationships can be incredibly distracting.  Thinking about, anticipating, being overjoyed with the presence of the object of your affection – well it leaves little room for mentally working out that production problem, or preparing for that presentation.  We all know how love, or even like, can be all consuming.

And keep in mind the rest of the team.  They can feel the shift in politics, they know something is up.  And when they figure it out, it can easily give rise to claims of unfair treatment, or favoritism.  And even if they don’t complain, it definitely has a huge impact on culture – because they’ll always be unsure.  Unsure if Mark got that plumb assignment because he’s good, or because he is in a relationship with Sally.

Alright – so far I’ve been talking about two people at different levels in the business.  But what about colleagues, at the same level.

Well the issue of distraction still comes into play.  And the impact on culture can definitely come into play as well.  Two people in an intimate relationship, on a team of three – you can see why that third person could easily feel like, well a third wheel.  Somehow not quite part of the group.  And when you have a team member that feels ‘disconnected’ that doesn’t lend itself to them doing their best work.

So, now that we know the downsides, what can and should you – as the business leader – do about it all.

Well, first up you need to figure out where you stand.  What is OK and what isn’t.

You know, back in the day, a lot (and I mean a lot) of companies simply prohibited employees from dating coworkers.  But in reality, and in today’s world, those types of restrictions seem really out of place in most industries.  So the most common way now is requiring notification, and the company can make a decision on a case by case basis.

So, that means your policy requires both parties to notify HR or management that the relationship exists.  And it’s best if they do this in writing.

Now a couple of points here – first, if it’s what I’ll call a manager / non-manager relationship – the burden of reporting should sit with the manager.  Meaning, that if the relationship isn’t reported, the manager is the person that will be disciplined.  Because again, it goes back to the power dynamic.  Perhaps Mark feels intimidated by Sally, and like he can’t come forward.  That’s why Sally is on the hook for making sure that relationship is reported to the company.

Next, if it’s a colleague to colleague relationship – then they are both equally responsible for reporting.

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Now, once you have been made aware – what do you do.

OK, if it’s a direct manager situation, well that’s the most dangerous and difficult.  As always, I suggest you have a chat with labor counsel.  But I’ll tell you that those types of relationships aren’t allowed in our company.  One or the other person has to leave the company – since we’re not large enough to transfer someone far enough away from that reporting structure.

I’ve worked with companies that way – the person  leaving will always be the person in the management position. Because they’re in a senior role, and the company expects them to show better judgement and responsibility.

The next most problematic is when the manager is in a different division.  Again, (though not directly) they are still in a power position.  And finally we have the colleague to colleague situation.

You’ll have to determine what makes the most sense for your business – but again, I almost always see some type of separation made – either with transfers, or in extreme cases, termination.

Now, once you’ve determined what is and isn’t OK in your business, and how you‘ll handle things – then you have to memorialize it all in a policy.  It can’t just live in your head, or by word of mouth.  It should be a written policy, that everyone has to acknowledge – you can just include it in your general handbook.

Remember, one day you might find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to stand on that policy to take disciplinary action against someone.  So it should be clear, thoughtful and written down.  And get help from your HR pro or labor counsel in putting that policy together – you’ll be glad you did, now and later.

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