An average worker spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. Further, with new technologies coming in, the line between professional and personal is getting blurred and people end up spending more time with their co-workers than with their family and friends. Given the amount of time that colleagues spend time together, workplace relationships have become common. Office relationships have given us people like Bill and Melinda and Barack and Michelle.
Last month McDonald’s announced that CEO Steve Easterbrook was ousted for engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee. In an email to employees, Easterbrook acknowledged he had a relationship with an employee and said it was a mistake. “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on,” Easterbrook said in the email.
Another event that grabbed the headlines was of Democratic congresswoman Katie Hill who resigned after her own consensual affair was revealed.
The ban on romantic relationships at workplaces has become prevalent since the #MeToo movements have grabbed attention worldwide. However, do steps like forbidding a consensual romantic relationship really work to prevent workplace harassment?
According to Marianne Cooper, Ph.D., a sociologist at the VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University, “A no-dating policy in the workplace cements in people’s minds that this is about sexual desire. But it is sexual harassment that is about people abusing their power. It is not, ‘I asked her out.’ When companies get stuck there, they’re not addressing the real problem.”
The birth of a policy like this stems from an assumption that those women don’t know the difference between an unwanted sexual advance from an office mate and a consensual relationship with a coworker.
These bans can also come up with a false narrative that any type of fraternizing with a woman at the office is risky. In 2019, 27 percent of men avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues, which is an excellent way for women to get left behind at work.
In fact, according to a survey done by Cosmopolitan, where they asked more than 800 women aged between the ages of 18 and 35 how they view love on the job. Eighty-four percent were totally down to date someone at their company as long as they’re not on the same team.
The last few years have been difficult for top league CEOs who were ousted not for their performance but for ethical disputes and getting into romantic and sexual relationships. For example, Brian Krzanich, Intel Chief Executive, was asked to leave when he was found to be having an extramarital affair with a subordinate. As earlier quoted, Esterbrook also indulged in dating with a colleague at a junior level.
One of the reasons for framing this policy around the pact that forbids C-suite level executives to develop a relationship with junior employees can be understood from the incident where Best Buy’s CEO was fired for a relationship with a 29-year-old employee. According to reports it was found that his favoritism towards “concerned person” diluted her supervisor’s ability to manage her.
The challenges with workplace relationships
According to a survey conducted by XpertHR on workplace relationships, it was found that the key challenges for employers to bar any kind of relationship are:
- Complaints of favoritism from co-workers: When employees perceive that there is favoritism in how they are treated by management, a sense of unfairness creeps in. It raises the question, “Why didn’t I get that project/promotion/corner office?” This brings down company morale because favoritism is understood to mean that no matter what you do, your efforts won’t be rewarded if you’re not one of the favored few.
- Bullying or unpleasant behavior between employees: Often employees who get into a relationship or share family bonds are bullied and mocked for getting professional advances even if that is not a case. We need to be mindful that while these relationships can impact the morale of employees who feel their potential is being overlooked, it can also impact employees being in relationship with an influential person as they got often blamed for sharing a relationship but never being praised for their capabilities that they bring to work and business.
- Couple’s productivity decreasing: Relationships often include fights and sometimes end on a bad note and impact both personal and professional life. It is easy to get distracted from work because of depression, anxiety, and simply seeing your new ex at work and overanalyzing communications—or miscommunications. In such a scenario it gets obvious that office productivity will fail under any negative circumstance, especially when both parties in a failed romance work at the same office.
- Claims of sexual harassment: The whole idea about framing policies around “not dating employees/co-workers” is eliminating workplace harassment. However, a different lens to look at the entire situation can also be reducing the fake allegations around harassment. According to various incidents that got highlighted during the #MeToo movement, there were certain cases got highlighted where colleagues under the rage have made false allegations of sexual harassment.
While there may be enough reasons to avoid workplace romance binding it to eliminating sexual harassment and favoritism at the workplace, there still lie some points which require deliberation from employers and HR. Are these policies really solving the issues of sexual harassment at the workplace? Also, this raises debate over how much power over employees wants to give their employers on their private lives. While Easterbrook got dismissed on the grounds of violating company policy, the specifics about that policy have not been released. Even without knowing the details, the fusion of romance with harassment is bizarre, given how more than 80 percent of people report meeting a romantic partner through work.
Image source: Fortune