How personal can companies get?

Is it morally right to expect employees to own up about their relationships with co-workers or even those outside the workplace? Does it not amount to infringement of privacy?

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In a recent case at BlackRock, the American global investment company, a memo was shared with the staff asking them to reveal their relationships with anyone connected to the firm, even indirectly. The Company’s policy already expects its employees to disclose to their managers if they are dating anyone within the organisation, and now the new memo apparently expects them to reveal their relationships with those outside who may be linked to the organisation in any way — employees of a vendor, service provider or third party, including client! The new rule has apparently been put into place to check any conflict of interest.

As per the policy, if there is any chance of the disclosed personal, romantic or sexual relationship creating a conflict of interest, the Company may resort to ‘alternative work arrangements’.

When organisations have a workplace dating policy in place, the intention is not to impose unjustified restrictions on employees dating each other. Everyone has the right to choose whom they want to be with but it is to ensure that such relationships do not go on to cause any sort of discomfort, awkward behaviour or problems at the workplace. Also such policies are applicable to the entire workforce, irrespective of position, gender, nationality, religion or sexual orientation.

In India, the forms that candidates usually fill in at the time of joining require them to specify their religion, caste and minority status, if applicable. A policy on relationships within the workplace has hardly been given much importance, although there are guidelines in place to check sexual harassment. Also, most Indian companies today do not allow a married couple to work in the same organisation or at least the same department or function. If two people enter into a relationship at the workplace and eventually tie the knot, the usual practice is to move them into different departments.


Ravi Mishra

“It is not right, as it is a matter of their own privacy and it is their choice to declare or not. You may remember 10 years back, there was a mandatory medical test for employees. Companies used to get the information and try to read in between the lines. Unless there is some job-specific occupational hazard, it shouldn’t be the case.”


Why is a dating or relationship policy required?

Well, if two employees working together on an important project enter into a relationship, it may affect their work/productivity, and even jeopardise the project. Unwanted biases may creep in, which may affect decision-making and compromise the wellbeing of the business.

Policies regarding dating and consensual relationships are also important so that, if the need should ever arise, the HR is able to handle gossip more effectively or look into conflicts of interest, if any. For this reason, many companies in the West have policies that usually require employees to inform the HR if a relationship has lasted a specific time period, usually a month or two.


Harshvendra Soin

“We are completely for respecting the privacy of our employees and we will not do anything to invade that. To me, such a policy trespasses privacy norms. The question concerns the personal and professional lives of the individuals. While I am concerned about the professional congruence or incongruence, what they do personally shouldn’t matter.”


How ethical is it?

We asked some members of the HR fraternity in India, their opinion on a workplace relationship policy. How ethical is it to seek such personal data from the employees?

Saba Adil, chief people officer, Raheja QBE, believes it depends on what purpose the policy serves. “Why they are seeking the information needs to be clearly communicated. ‘Relationship’ will need to be defined and clarified among other things, or it will remain in the grey area. Also, it’s not just about one person but the partner as well. Are they both comfortable with such a disclosure? If the purpose is to identify conflict of interest, I think it is okay, provided the employees are at ease.”

She feels that in trying to find out about such relationships, the organisation may discover other issues, such as preference for certain clients, or vendors, or some level of favouritism.


Balachandar N

“In an era where we are not asking for age, family details or even past compensation, asking about personal relationships seems regressive in my view. we may miss out on some good candidates or be unable to attract the best, due to such a policy.”


Adil also points out that many companies today do have a clause in their policy, requiring employees to declare their relationships within the Company, if they have any. In some companies, it is acceptable, if there is no conflict of interest. However, she asserts that the consent of the concerned employee and the partner are a must here.

Ravi Mishra, SVP – HR, Grasim Industries, Global Epoxy Business, Aditya Birla Group believes if it is related to the business, then it is certainly ethical. However, there’s also a question about privacy. “It is not right, as it is a matter of their own privacy and it is their choice to declare or not. You may remember 10 years back, there was a mandatory medical test for employees. Companies used to get the information and try to read in between the lines. Unless there is some job-specific occupational hazard, it shouldn’t be the case.”

On the privacy concern part, Balachandar N, group head – human resources, Coffee Day Enterprises, also feels it is not the right thing to do. “In an era where we are not asking for age, family details or even past compensation, asking about personal relationships is regressive in my view. They may miss out on some good candidates or be unable to attract the best, due to this policy,” says Balachandar.

Harshvardhan Soin, chief people officer and head – marketing, Tech Mahindra, also seconds Balachandar’s views. “We are completely for respecting the privacy of our employees and we will not do anything to invade that. To me, such a policy trespasses privacy norms. The question concerns the personal and professional lives of the individuals. While I am concerned about the professional congruence or incongruence, what they do personally shouldn’t matter,” explains Soin.


Saba Adil

“Why they are seeking the information needs to be clearly communicated. ‘Relationship’ will need to be defined and clarified among other things, or it will remain in the grey area. Also, it’s not just about one person but the partner as well. Are they both comfortable with such a disclosure? If the purpose is to identify conflict of interest, I think it is okay, provided the employees are at ease.”


Considering that BlackRock has a 16,000-strong workforce, its recent move to get deeper into the private lives of its employees may have far-reaching insinuations and repercussions even if the intention is to avoid conflict of interest.

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