Consensual or not, relationships at work are best avoided

Companies with good values should put in place policies regarding affairs between employees at work.

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There was a time when romance and affairs in the workplace used to be taboo. However, nowadays they have become acceptable albeit with certain boundaries. But what if they involve two people whose difference in professional positions is way too big? What should the company do then?

Last Sunday, McDonald’s, the world’s biggest fast food chain announced that its CEO is stepping down. The Company took this decision after it emerged that Steve Easterbrook, CEO, was in a consensual relationship with an employee, which violated company rules.

The board of the Company released a statement saying that Mr. Easterbrook had demonstrated poor judgement. Easterbrook himself stated that “It was time to step down.”

While office romances are no longer taboo and hush-hush, affairs take on a different dimension when it involves the highest position in the company or any other seat of power. Then, it is not just the employees but the company itself that becomes involved as well, and not in a good way.

Leaders in powerful positions carry the burden of needing to be cautious of every step they take. They tread a very thin line between affection and harassment. This is because, as soon as they reach that positon of power, that seat comes with its own expectations and the person occupying it is expected to meet those expectations. The chair makes the rules. And rightly so, because the repercussions can be all that worse.

Jayati Roy, director HR, Barco, says, “Even if there is a consensus, it is strongly advisable to not have any kind of strong relationship at the workplace.”

Strong relationships always mean stronger emotions, and this can lead to biases. This is the same reason why most organisations have policies against hiring blood relatives of any employee working in the same organisation.

Jayati Roy

“Even if there is a consensus, it is strongly advisable to not have any kind of strong relationship at the workplace”

All CEOs must exercise discretion when it comes to relationships of such kind. Even beyond the stated rules and regulations of the company, these are norms which they should be aware of and abide by.

Being the chief of a company means having to carry the image of the company on your shoulders. A CEO needs to uphold the policies of the company and be a strong practitioner of its values. A CEO who does not uphold company values, runs a company which has no value at all.

That is why, McDonald’s had to take such strict action against its own popular CEO.

NV Balachandar, executive director HR, Ashok Leyland, says, “Any good company with good values will have a policy which dictates how people should conduct themselves inside and outside work. I am in strong favour of such a written policy.”

With POSH and D&I policies, in particular, it has become all the more important for companies to take this seriously, so that they propagate and communicate their stance across across all levels of the organisation.

This is not to say that any kind of office romance should be frowned upon. According to an anonymous HR professional, office romances are quite common, especially in the IT industry. There, it is more prevalent because the workforce mainly comprises millennials and they expect an open culture from the company. However, this is between employees who are on the same level, professionally.

NV Balachandar

“Any good company with good values will have a policy which dictates how people should conduct themselves inside and outside work. I am in strong favour of such a written policy”

When it comes to a senior and a junior worker, it is more important to be cautious because such relationships are more noticeable. Also, if things go sour, it can greatly risk the career of one person because the other will inevitably complain.

If the power-distance index is too high, then it is advisable to avoid such relationships.

There can be allegations of bias and favouritism in favour of the junior employee especially if both are from the same department. Workers may complain of being denied opportunities of growth and benefits.

All that HR can do is ensure a strong policy framework and frequent reinforcement of POSH guidelines. Employees will need to be sensitised to prevent them getting into relationships which would turn sour later.

HR cannot really keep track of romantic affairs in the workplace but they can certainly take strict action when somebody raises an alarm.

Workplace romance can have a strong impact on the professional setup as well.Therefore, it is imperative that HR and the organisation take a stand at some point.

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