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Should employers get involved in workplace affairs?

Posted by: Tom Morris


We spend the majority of our waking week at work, and with those we work with.

With the longest working hours in Europe, the office becomes a key focal point in our lives and the main way to meet like-minded people with similar values and shared ambitions.

We see our colleagues at their best at work. They are attractive because they are competent and confident in what they do, are dressed to impress and can often be powerful.

Workplace affairs don’t include stresses of daily life like money worries, who is going to pick up the kids and taking the bin out. However, the anticipation is often better than the reality you risk losing your current relationship and everything that comes with it.

But when it goes wrong, and it is often when and not if, the collateral damage can be significant.

So, should employers get involved and exercise damage control?

The main issue for employers is walking the fine line between protecting the business and wading head first into their staff’s personal lives.

Considering the business, the individuals’ competency could be called into question. It came to light, for example, that Sir Fred Goodwin had been having an affair with a senior colleague whilst managing RBS. Questions were then raised around whether this had any influence in the collapse of the bank.

The Financial Services Authority have attempted to implement principles around workplace affairs that apply to staff who manage controlled functions or are deemed to have significant influence factors. The FSA claim that such a relationship could lead to a potential breach of compliance systems.

Other organisations also cite security reasons or a conflict of interest for policies dealing with workplace affairs. For example, Natwest has a rule stating that staff must inform their line manager of any potential relationship with another employee. Although, I can see the irony in the financial services industry’s attempts at imposing a set of moral standards and systems on their staff.

But for regulated industries like banking and others such as the police force, healthcare and education, it is important that any conduct that could be considered as a conflict of interest, inappropriate or not serving the best interests of their customers, is highlighted to the right people.

Employers also need to consider the impact of a workplace affair on not only the individuals, but on the team as whole. These kinds of relationships can create jealously and accusations of favouritism as well as moral apprehension amongst co-workers.

For the individuals themselves, they may face longer-term problems such as being passed over for promotion if they had to manage the other as it would be seen as inappropriate. This may give rise to complaints from the individual to the employer.

However, if one is already in more a senior position, if often means that the more junior member of staff in the affair is pushed out when it all comes to an end. Although an exception to the rule was when boss of Boeing, Harry Stonecipher, had an affair with a junior member of staff, not only was the man in the relationship made to resign; he was the more senior too.

Extra-marital affairs tend to be even trickier to deal with as they are usually short-term and are much more complex because more parties are involved. It also tends to create more gossip in the office too, often with some co-workers throwing in their moral stand point on the situation.

But one of the biggest worries for employers is the potential harassment, victimisation and discrimination claims. Either party of the relationship could claim that they were forced into the relationship in order to keep their job or perhaps claim that they are being harassed since ending the affair.

One way of damage control in these circumstances is to have a set of guidelines relating to romantic workplace relationships as well as creating an environment that encourages staff to be open and transparent with the company. These means if the relationship and facts are known without being intrusive, then the business can take action before any accusations get out of hand.

Although some industries want a blanket ban on workplace affairs, this is not only unrealistic and possibly a violation of human rights, it is more likely to add to the illicit thrill and secrecy meaning that employees would just do it anyway and to hell with the consequences!

People work better together, are more productive and happier when they get on with their co-workers. I am not suggesting that workplace affairs should be encouraged to emulate this (!) but with an understanding and supportive employer, an employee is more likely to deal with the fallout in a mature and respectful way.

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