Whether written or unwritten, most businesses and organizations have rules and policies about work relationships. They may provide direction for employees as they put time and energy into projects. They may shape the manager-subordinate relationship in the workplace. Or they may set standards for working with vendors and customers. They also may set boundaries with romantic activity on the job.
That last point is probably the best place to begin because romance truly can cause workplace problems—even if the two people are happy in their relationship. That’s the easiest of all ethical issues, because both parties are consenting to the relationship. As a church pastor, I have known many couples who met at work and found a lot in common with each other. If they are mature and sensible people, they can build a good relationship.
But love for each other can cloud judgment in the workplace— unless the company is large and has multiple locations. If the couple shares an office, it can create problems, especially if the marital relationship skews the management of the office. Other employees can feel shut out of decision-making. If the marital relationship becomes more difficult or is torn by conflict, the operation of the business becomes very difficult for others. Instead of business activity, a soap opera can develop.
So there can be conflicting roles to sort through, which creates ethical challenges in dealing with decision-making and discipline. What happens, though, when an office romance develops and one or both people are married to others? We all know that the word for this situation is an affair. Most of us know that this type of workplace romance can create ethical challenges—especially if one person has some authority over the other person in job functions. And this situation is a step above sexual harassment and predatory behavior in the workplace. Most employers have a set of policies for this issue.
On the other hand, consensual relationships also create all kinds of ethical problems. We are often disturbed by office relationships. Unless the two people are mature (in which case the relationship would be hidden from others), the workplace romance can wreak havoc on employee morale. In one workplace where I did some consulting, a program director had fallen in love with one of the people who worked in his department. The lovebirds saw each other in the office from time to time, and would giggle and steal kisses. They tended to lengthen the lunch hour so that they could eat together and engage in, shall we say, recreational activities afterwards.
The other employees in the office were disgusted by the whole situation. Some knew that the man was married. Others had some provable concerns about the woman’s job performance even before she became involved with the manager. But there was nothing that they could do, because their jobs depended on the program director’s approval. What’s more, there was nothing in the employee handbook about restrictions on workplace relationships, or consequences for sexual activity on the job with a co-worker or a subordinate.
One day, the program director’s wife came to the office to pick up something and to talk for a moment to her husband. He wasn’t there, and the administrative assistant did not say where he was (fearing for her own job). Within a few minutes, her husband appeared at the office door and embraced and kissed the female employee. Then he came into the office to discover that his wife was waiting for him.
Without going into detail, the shouting match could be heard throughout the office and lasted quite a while. Employees tried to make themselves scarce. The executive director came out and insisted that the couple take their marital dispute outside. They did—and now the workplace audience grew larger as the argument continued. What’s worse, the female employee went outside to vent her feelings. Inside the office, employees went as a group to the executive and demanded that this program director be fired. The executive made no commitments to them.
There’s much more to this story—but suffice it to say that workplace romances, however they develop, are ethical quagmires. Some workplaces ban them altogether. Others allow them, but require the parties not to work in the same workplace area so that others are not bothered or distracted. Still other employers insist that all romantic relationships happen off the job.
Next month, we’ll think through some ways to deal with the problems of romance at work—when it is ugly and involves power over others, workplace manipulation or worse, sexual harassment. In the meantime, say “I love you,” but only among family and friends. IBI