The perils, pitfalls and peculiarities of love, marriage, heartbreak and breakup in the workplace
From Gowling WLG Happy and Unhappy Valentine’s
by David Law
Although many people first meet their future spouse at work, employers are rightly concerned about the complexities of romance in the workplace.
Employment case law is riddled with examples of love and sex blooming in the workplace, only to wilt or explode: the tragic Queen of the North ferry case of 2006, where a ferry crashed, and sank (killing two people) was found to have happened because the man steering the boat was distracted (by having sex with a crew member); or the infamous Australian workers’ compensation case involved a travelling employee claiming for injuries sustained when robust lovemaking knocked a light off a wall, breaking her nose.
Between those two extremes, are the normal instances of workplace romance causing HR departments to worry about things like:
- conflicts of interest
- too much drama
- the possibility of harassment and similar complaints
Conflicts of interest will arise where a person reports to a romantic partner (compromising the integrity of performance reviews, promotions, the distribution of assignments and opportunities, etc). This casts a doubt over the decision-making of the “boss” in the relationship. It also can have a demoralizing effect on other team members who wonder whether they’re getting a fair shake.
Even where romantic partners are not in a direct reporting relationship with each other, “organizational proximity” in the workplace can have similar effects. In one case I dealt with, two members of the management team (we will call them Beth and Bob) became a couple. Their obvious closeness meant that they had opportunities to communicate, share their thoughts and develop strategies together. Fellow managers not getting into bed with Beth and Bob each night felt (and were) excluded from significant business-related conversation. Those excluded managers also found themselves treading very carefully, not to cross Beth for fear of upsetting Bob, or vice versa. Over time the couple accrued a gravitational pull which weakened and intimidated their peers and their many subordinates.
Another effect of the situation was to make the entire management team’s decision-making weaker (because it was infected with an element that altered the behaviour and reduced the input of valuable people). The company’s ultimate decision to pull the two apart (by re-assigning them to separate divisions of the company) could well have been called “constructive dismissal” by the person re-assigned – ultimately, that person had to be promoted, to another department, to buy peace.
The problem of “too much drama” is real but almost impossible to police. People who are in love with each other, are often in an altered state – their emotions are heightened, their priorities shift, their judgement skewed (for good or ill). When things are going well with a couple, all is bliss. But when things are not going well, the opposite is often too true. In such situations we see two employees impaired by the same personal problem – each other – and as in home life, their friends and coworkers tend to “take sides.” Relationship breakdown can also be cause to nudge people into separate corners, so that they aren’t constantly running into each other.
In one case known to me, “Molly and George” were a well-liked, high profile couple. Both were young, unusually attractive and smart – the poster girl and boy for their company. Their breakup was profoundly uncomfortable for all concerned, but the real trouble began some months later when George got involved with another co-worker, Ingrid. Some felt it was “offside” for Ingrid to date George – that she had betrayed an unwritten rule among female co-workers. The unfairness of this phenomenon – blaming Ingrid but not George for a lack of restraint – appeared lost on the people caught up in it. Ingrid became a pariah among the majority of young women in the workplace, a situation that was deeply painful for her. She was not unhappy to leave the company.
There can be problems even when relationships go well: one person I interviewed, “Anne” is dating “Teddy”, a fellow employee far removed from her department. They almost never naturally cross paths at work. But they want to. Their magnetic attraction to each other naturally means they spend as much time together as they can, Anne says – meeting up for lunch, instead of joining work colleagues, skipping after-hours drinks at the pub to go home and watch Netflix together. “It’s a bit isolating” Anne says. Those are personal impacts but they also affect the workplace engagement for both members of the couple.
Even when a known romantic relationship is well handled at work by the couple themselves, co-workers may (understandably) assume that one member is enjoying advantages at work that he or she does not merit, simply because the relationship exists. Co-worker suspicion, resentment and judgment are very human reactions that can take a toll – whether or not justified in the particular circumstances. Co-workers need to be assured that the company is aware – and fair.
Of course, the ultimate problem with colleagues falling in love, is when one falls and the other doesn’t. In its benign form, unrequited love simply means a dose of misery for one person and discomfort for the other. In its malignant form, it becomes sexual harassment, stalking or worse. Every workplace is a hierarchy investing individuals with degrees of power over others. The potential to misuse that power, or to be accused of doing so, means that relationships between individuals at different levels of an organization are particularly hazardous.
Even where everything is rosy between two co-workers in love, the situations can be fraught. Employers are often at a loss to handle these situations. Some contemplate “banning relationships” but (1) that is incredibly intrusive and oppressive (2) also unrealistic and (3) will mainly motivate people to lie.
A better approach is to encourage transparency, asking people to report to their boss, or perhaps HR, when they’ve gotten into a relationship.
When do people report “they are in a relationship?” There is no “bright line” marking when two people become a “couple” – the process is very human and personal. Some signs are self-evident (co-habitation, a change of Facebook relationship status) but whenever it happens, employees know and at that juncture, should understand that it is time to advise their respective managers.
Of course, no one will be honest about it unless they know the company plans to do as little as possible about it, except where strictly necessary. A reasonable policy would say this:
- Employers generally have no business knowing about their employees’ private lives, and should reiterate that to employees;
- But when a personal relationship between co-workers has the potential to cause conflicts in the workplace, the individuals involved should have a duty to report their personal connection;
- Those personal relationships are instances of people working in the same team or group (where they share a boss or key project, for example) or where one reports to another.
- Essentially, in any situation where a relationship between two co-workers has the potential to alter the behaviour of the couple – or those around them – an employer’s interest is legitimate.
- Given the unique hazards of more senior employees in intimate relationships with junior staff, even for people who aren’t proximate to each other at work, the senior employee should be obliged to ensure that the company is informed.
- Ideally, employment contracts should remind employees of their duty of good faith and the need to avoid conflicts of interest.
- Employment policies should clearly allow for management to take action to separate romantic partners where there is a real or potential conflict of interest – and as always, employees should be trained on those policies. Without that, it will be difficult to remedy a conflict without firing someone (costing the company everything they’ve invested in that person, triggering exit expenses and alienating the “surviving” partner left behind).
The cost of enforcing an oppressive rule (in terms of lost time, dollars, morale and respect for management) is often far worse than the “problem” employers are trying to solve. It is not realistic or even wise for most organizations to stop employees from falling in love with each other, or even falling in bed with each other.
The best possible course, it seems, is to require people to be honest about possible conflicts of interest – and to not punish them when they are.