Lead with Love: Should Romance Be Taboo?

Lead with Love: Should Workplace Romance Be Taboo?

emotional intelligence - personal relationships lead with love Apr 01, 2022

On February 2, 2022, the president of CNN Worldwide publicly announced his resignation because he had failed to disclose a personal relationship with a CNN senior executive.  According to both parties, the relationship was consensual and had grown from professional, to personal, to intimate.

This leads many to ask: when co-workers seek connection and friendship, should love, dating, and romance be forbidden in the workplace. Especially, by an authority such as the employer or other business stakeholders?

Depending on the decade you entered the workplace, you might have witnessed romantic relationships or perhaps you were involved in a workplace tryst. I remember a few. I mean, I witnessed a few.

Perhaps naïve, I seemed to be the last person to know or notice when personal relationships became intimate among my colleagues.

  •  I remember the 1970s’ clandestine lunch-in-the-car between a sales manager and a sales representative. Workplace romance was definitely taboo at the time, but we all knew, and we were all a bit judgmental.
  •  In the 1980s, as a young manager, I felt awkward about addressing a “sweet” romance that was developing between two young engineers who often travelled together in remote areas.  
  •  In the following decades, workplace romances - especially among my colleagues who travelled together - became commonplace, but still uncomfortable for me. Not because I judged them, but because I travelled with them.

As I would learn about workplace relationships, I would think, “Whose business is it anyway?” I now believe it is everyone’s business when a relationship affects people beyond the intimate couple and thereby, affects the health and well-being of the workplace culture.

Prior to the pandemic, I had a surge of requests from clients for policies that specifically addressed personal relationships in the workplace. Some were reactive in response to bad outcomes in the workplace including legal complaints. Others were proactive as they began to see the potential for a workplace culture going amiss.

As hybrid working models develop, we will see this topic creep back as a priority. No doubt, we will witness a boom in personal relationships as people, craving connection, will be ready for socializing, friendships, and perhaps more than a few budding romances. We will be redefining the workplace culture, again.

Compliance vs Integrity-based Cultures

I’ve noticed that views and opinions vary greatly on this topic depending on the size of the organization, the history (of the organization and the individual), and the perceived risk of intimate alliances. Company policies have evolved to acknowledge close personal relationships, set boundaries, and minimize risks.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, and published by Harvard Law School, the number of close personal relationship policies is on the rise. They report that in 2017, more than 50% of respondents have formal, written policies, and 78% discourage supervisor-subordinate relationships.

Unfortunately, in my experience, written policies are used more often to protect the organization (in court) rather than to underpin a healthy workplace culture that protects and serves the best interest of employees, especially the most vulnerable. We definitely need written policies to set clear boundaries and accountability, but we need systems, procedures, and behaviours that are aligned with the policies to preserve the integrity of the workplace culture.

Fraternization in the Workplace

Not all close personal relationship policies include anti-fraternization even though fraternization (mingling) can negatively affect work performance and can compromise the integrity of the organization. Fraternization is where the seeds of romance (flirtation) are planted.

Employees are confronted with confusing messaging regarding fraternization. Their employers routinely set expectations, provide environments, and present opportunities for ‘mingling’ framed as team building and with pressure on employees to participate in order to be seen as ‘good co-workers’. Some employers expect or passively encourage socializing outside of business hours. Employees who do not participate in after-hours ‘mingling’ are often subject to microaggressions and career-limiting consequences.

The Pros of Non-fraternization Policies

  • Prevent sexual harassment and potential workplace violence when romance fades and the relationship sours
  • Mitigate organization’s legal risk
  • Curtail workplace favoritism/toxicity
  • Outline accountability processes and consequences

The Cons of Non-fraternization Policies

  • Grey areas: What is a close personal relationship?
  • Enforcement: Who monitors compliance? Are consequences fairly and equally enforced?
  • Paternalism: Should employers have the authority regarding personal matters?
  • Alignment and Integrity: Are systems, practices, and behaviours consistent with the intent of the policies?

Many of us have heard sweet, charming, or amusing stories of romantic encounters that originated in the workplace (aka “meet-cutes”). This is no surprise, given that 35-40% of those surveyed (above), report having a workplace romance, and 72% would do so again. Surprisingly, 22% dated a supervisor. 

Therefore, is it reasonable and realistic to expect a non-fraternization policy to prevent romantic encounters? Clearly, there are multiple considerations, including the approach, the scope, and the consequences.

I strongly encourage all employees to review their organization’s policies. When discussing this topic with leaders and managers, I strongly recommend that they review policies for:

  • How does the policy address employees’ concerns? Have you actually broached the topic and listened to their concerns? If you don't engage in conversation on the topic, it will go underground. 
  • What channels are in place to support employees in the relationship and those affected by the relationship?
  • What roles, responsibilities, and procedures are in place to support the intent of the policies?
    • How can employees report/disclose their intentions/status and maintain their dignity and privacy? Confidentiality. Unbiased. Non-judgmental. 
    • While I believe that employees are responsible for informing their employer about their close personal and intimate relationships in the workplace, I believe strongly that employers must provide a trusting environment and competent leadership to assess the situation without bias and judgement. They must take appropriate action and be above reproach in their own behaviours.
  • Where are the grey areas? Power relationships? Nepotism? Conflict of interest?

Truly successful organizations are led with love, especially in the matter of workplace romance.

If you are a business owner/employer, do you have a Relationship Policy that addresses different types of relationships, fraternization, and even romantic love?

  • Are the definitions and boundaries clear to avoid misinterpretation?
  • How often do you assess the effectiveness of such policies?
  • Is the emotional comfort and safety of every employee considered as a top priority?

If you need assistance with drafting a Relationship Policy, please contact me.

Is this a conversation you would like to continue? Would you like to explore the connections I make with this topic and emotional intelligence? You can reach me on LinkedIn. Or click to Get in Touch.

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