Beginning and ending affairs at work is risky business

One of the most common places to meet a new partner or start a love relationship is at work. It’s hard enough finding a special someone, is it really that unreasonable to find that person at your place of work? How many organisations have partners comfortably working under the same roof, and may have even met at work?

But when the relationship in question is an affair, there are important considerations for the organisation and individuals concerned.

Relationships at work flourish

According to one recent research studymeeting at pubs mostly lead to flings, holidays to short term romances, and meeting friends through friends results in long term relationships. But, according to the research, couples meeting at work are most likely to marry. 

Relationships are a wonderful fact of life. They blossom anytime, anywhere, and frequently through our work. We’re human. We are sizzling containers of chemicals that every now and then sizzle and react in the presence of another human. 

Is it anyone’s business to question workplace relationships?

Whose business is it to ask about, discuss or make judgments about personal relationships? Some might argue that relationships are nobody else’s business. Is it a company’s right, or anyone’s right, to comment on married partners having affairs, for example?

Well yes, for many organisations, it is against company policy to start, or more likely continue, relationships at work. Some organisations require one person to leave and certainly most advocate not having two people in the same team, with one reporting to another.

Be proactive

A relationship becomes a company’s business when ethics and reputations are at stake, and all the more so when hypocrisy is causing other innocent parties hurt and distress. Affairs that are treated as an “open secret” among colleagues, but concealed from others who have a vested interest in knowing the truth (for example, married partners), are sooner or later going to hit the fan. 

Managers having affairs with more junior team members

Most organisations accept it is not appropriate for workers to have relationships with customers and clients, especially sales people, medical professionals, advisers and so on.

And the biggest no-no is a senior leader having a relationship with a staff member, because of reputation and leadership issues.

The culture and the policies are at the heart of the problem

When affairs unravel at work, especially if there is more than one, start by looking at the culture and the policies. This week, the AFL will be working on a new or upgraded respect and responsibility policy, like many organisations before it. But policies without training and consequences are pointless.

We can all learn from mistakes and make improvements. This last week of AFL revelations have been a sharp warning to many businesses to get their house in order. We need to look at how to prevent problems by getting the policies right in the first place. Think about what to do if an affair is suspected — what is okay and what is not. Consider rules about if a relationship starts, or if a relationship develops.

Love contract at work

Some companies have a “love contract” where people who are dating, romantically involved or starting a budding relationship must declare they are in a relationship and sign an agreement. The contract may help limit the liability of the organisation if the relationship ends or becomes toxic over time. It must eliminate any notion of sexual harassment, ensuring the parties will continue to act professionally after the relationship is over. Hopefully this removes the chance of a sexual harassment lawsuit down the track.

The employees in the relationship must declare it as soon as it is evident; everyone talks so either they come forward or they are ‘asked’ to consider signing a contract.  

The love contract may include:

• An agreement that the relationship is consensual by the two parties; 

• That neither one must ever be in position to report to each other (i.e. be their manager). This avoids someone junior later saying “I know I said it was consensual but I thought I’d lose my job”; and

• That the relationship does not go against or violate company polices, such as anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.

Act swiftly

It’s no use turning a blind eye in these situations — most people can smell a fling a mile off. Those having an affair often give themselves away. It needs to be clearly spelled out that while attractions can and do happen, the place for conducting relationships of this variety is not in the office. Implement a “love contract” — consider asking employees to declare that they are in a relationship and sign an agreement.

Develop policies on romantic relationships at work

There comes a point when relationships of this nature are causing a massive conflict of interest. This is particularly so when one person is more senior to the other. Both can protest that the relationship is “consensual” but what happens when things sour?  In some cases, sexual harassment or breach of contract allegations can begin, and as we know, these can and do end up in court, creating a huge mess (financial and emotional) for all involved. 

You may not want to go as far as instigating love contracts of the kind mentioned above, but the company stance on romantic relationships needs to be considered and clearly-understood.

Define the culture you want

The chief executive or leader of an organisation should counsel all senior managers to not participate in affairs and take risks on behalf of company. If rumours start, don’t ignore them. Talk to the individuals, get the facts and act.

Senior managers (and those above them) need to set the tone and define the culture. By permitting office nookie or overlooking sniggering over “lists”, you jeopardise the company’s brand and reputation. If you participate, then through your shenanigans, sooner or later, someone is going to be forced to leave, or fall on their sword.

Yes, countless workplaces got away with this kind of “risky business” during the last hundred years. But did they really? We have lots of great sit-coms, films and documentaries to show for all this, not to mention numerous media headlines, companies going bust and the shattering of some people’s lives.

Is a delicious few moments or months, worth risking your career and reputation, let alone that of your colleagues and the company that employs you, or the connected loved ones? Address this as honestly as possible, and you’ll probably concede that nine times out of 10, the answer is no.

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