Office romances get a lot of footage on movies, television series and popular culture. It is so normalised that it one may expect to find love or at least fleeting sexual encounters in the workplace. Think of how many of your favourite television series have important characters who are involved in a workplace romance at one time or other. Cops, spies, outsourced workers, doctors, lawyers, stock brokers – they are all having lots of sex with coworkers and some of them are even getting married.
So young people today join the workforce and treats the workplace as a place where they might meet a love interest or just get more sex. It may not be said loudly but the expectation exists.
It’s time that organizations begin to notice it. After all, it is not like India doesn’t have a harsh sexual harassment law or very difficult legal system. In the last few years the high and mighty have fallen time and again with scandals related to workplace sex and multiple sexual harassment accusations. CEOs, founders, investors and MDs have gone down in blaze after being hit with multiple sexual harassment complaints, with their own as well as the organization’s reputation ruined for the long term.
There are other less publicized costs of sexual harassment or even consensual sexual/romantic relationships in the workplace. And it is not just distraction or competition and resultant animosity amongst co-workers.
These relationships in the workplace, especially when undisclosed, can lead to conflict of interest, lack of trust among co-workers, poor judgement, favouritism, ethical breaches and of course harassment.
None of these bode well for an organisation. Most organizations are already battling a tough battle of hiring good people, retaining then, building a conducive and friendly culture, creating alignment between teams, keeping people energized and excited, ensuring an ethical and fair environment. None of these are easy. Adding romantic relationship related dynamic complications to that or sprinkling in some jilted lovers and jealous co-workers is nothing short of disastrous.
How should organizations go about handling dating in the workplace?
There are a few approaches that seem to work and there are many that don’t work at all.
In my opinion, dating in workplace should be prohibited. If two people start dating or engage in a sexual encounter, they should immediately be required to disclose the same to the management, and one of them may be thereafter released in a planned way or given a role in a different team so that there is no conflict of interest situations.
If you allow your finance guy to date a vendor, or a product manager to date an engineer, or a lawyer to date his clients then I can only wish all the best for your organisation but would not be expecting the best at all. These are all terrible conflict of interest situations. I will never want to lead or invest in an organisation where people who are accountable to each other professionally are in sexual or romantic relationships and are not prevented by policy or required to disclose such conflict of interest. This is simply because that sort of pervasive conflict of interest, if allowed to thrive, costs untold losses which are sometimes very difficult to even discover or quantify.
One effective approach to dating policy in workplace is to ban dating co-workers and requiring immediate disclosure of relationship of a romantic or sexual nature. At iPleaders and LawSikho, we follow this approach.
Another good approach is to not ban it outright, but requiring the signing of a consensual relationship contract that both the parties in the relationship agree to. This should be connected with rigorous management of any conflict of interest. People can be shifted from one role to another or to a different team to avoid conflict of interest. This definitely bring down the number of casual workplace relationships as people know that there is a procedure they need to follow and hence are more serious when considering a relationship with a colleague. It also drastically reduce allegations of sexual harassment as people cannot later claim that they were pressured for being into a relationship. The organization should also get an indemnity from dating co-workers to protect itself from legal or other liabilities that may arise due to their existing relationship or as a repercussion to a future falling out.
The dating policy should also address if an employee or officer may date customers/ buyers. This is a special case of conflict of interest and represent a different set of challenges.
The dating policy is, of course, not to be confused with a sexual harassment policy and should be kept separate from a sexual harassment policy. Mixing them up, though done by some organizations, sends the wrong signal.
Do you think your organisation should or should not have a workplace dating policy? Why yes or why not? Please share your comments with us generously.
Here is a course related to Sexual harassment laws and workplace diversity that I co-created. Please check it out and recommend to your colleagues who may benefit from it.