Sharon Mulligan is an executive coach and organisational consultant with over 25 years of experience working at senior executive levels across various service industries.
Personal relationships at work are more common than most employers realise.
A recent study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the University of Chicago’s AmeriSpeak Panel, found that more than a quarter (27%) of the 696 workers surveyed admitted to having romantic relationships with their work colleagues. 25% of them said it was with a manager and 41% said they were asked out on a date by a colleague. However, for personal relationships to create potential issues at the workplace they need not necessarily be of a romantic nature. Close friendships can also become challenging for the organisation unless dealt with effectively. While friendships, supportive relationships and a caring and trusting environment is critical for the wellbeing, engagement and performance of employees, there is also another side to relationships that needs to be managed.
This is not surprising. When humans share a common reality or context over a significant period, it is completely natural that close relationships are formed. These relationships can develop into deeper romantic attachments. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, employers need to be aware of the impact that personal relationships can have on the organisation, especially on team dynamics, perceptions of fairness and work performance.
The following are some important questions employers need to ask:
• What happens if the relationship is between a manager and a subordinate?
• What if the displays of affection are unwanted from one of the individuals?
• What should employers do if the relationship in question creates a conflict of interest or challenges confidentiality rules?
• What happens if the relationship turns sour and has an impact on the dynamics of the team or the office workplace?
In this article I will address some of the issues mostly related to romantic or intimate relationships at work. However, we need to bear in mind that all close relationships can create issues unless they are managed properly.
Some organisations have explicit policies against dating or getting involved in a romantic relationship with a co-worker. However, it is unrealistic to try to enforce a policy that states that close friendships or intimate relationships are forbidden. Adopting this stance is likely to drive relationships “underground” and this can prove to be more problematic for the business, the co-workers and the individuals themselves. Instead, leaders need reflect on the culture they want to promote and ensure an approach that is current, realistic and balanced in ways that protect employees while giving them the freedom and space to form relationships responsibly.
As a professional organisation and a good employer, policies and guidelines should be directed to specific areas of risk. For example, the policy or guidelines can state that relationships between line managers and direct reports are not permitted with a view that it would be unprofessional for the line manager to hold performance and salary reviews with someone that they are romantically involved with. The guidelines may suggest they disclose the relationship to the organisation to ensure that there is no conflict of interest that may give reason to the employer and co-workers to question professionalism, breaches of confidentiality or integrity. In this case, the same principle applies to platonic relationships between manager and direct reports. A close friendship between the two can make it just as difficult for the manager to maintain objectivity, ensure fairness or even take disciplinary measures.
Employers also need to be prepared for relationships that end and possibly turn sour. Employees may need to be protected from further unwanted advances or persistent pressure to return to the relationship. This can be a particularly sensitive issue if there is a power differential in roles between the persons concerned.
Employers should provide guidelines and regular training on sexual harassment, anti-bullying, grievance procedures and clear codes of ethical conduct. This will serve to protect employees and provide clear behavioural standards and expectations.
Company policy and guidelines should also encourage individuals involved in a close personal relationship to set their own professional boundaries whilst at work. The company can then put the onus of responsibility on the individuals to be professionally mature and know the risks as well as the impact of their personal decision on themselves and their co-workers. If the company cannot depend on the professional maturity of the people concerned, they need to be given constructive feedback and clear guidelines to educate, inform and encourage professional boundaries and appropriate behaviour within the work environment.
There may be situation where the quality of work is negatively impacted as a direct result of a personal relationship. This could consist of wasted time, biased decisions and failure to point out errors or expose risks. These situations need to be managed with the same process and objectivity as any other type of performance related issue. Such a process would begin by an open discussion to understand the situation and explore how the individual sees it and whether they are aware that it is affecting their performance. This is followed by clear feedback, guidance and support as well as taking the necessary measures for improvement. This approach will help define a clear way forward that is helpful to the employees and that will help to get them back on track.
The formation of personal relationships can be considered as a natural consequence of people bonding together in a shared environment. Friendships at work create a strong sense of belonging, increased collaboration and a greater sense of trust. However, it is important that these relationships are managed professionally and ethically in a way that prioritises human respect, a safe workplace environment and a culture of fairness and responsible behaviour.
Sharon Mulligan is a member of the Institute of Directors and Institute of Leadership Management. Sharon has held consultancy positions for major international change projects with major banks and financial services companies. She has occupied key positions in all aspects of strategic HR, leadership and executive coaching. Sharon is currently co-director of PsyPotential Ltd, a learning and development company offering various services that promote the development and wellbeing of people in organisations. She specialises in leadership development and executive coaching.