Respect and Romance in Organizations, Part 5

It took me a couple of days reviewing these posts to realize I’d missed one of the biggest problems in organizations especially when it comes to human interactions: romance.

When I was single, I did date people who were my peers in my organizations. I still see office-romance occur with a fair amount of frequency.

When the two people in question are peers, it’s often easier to manage a couple or a breakup, for the people and the management. We have real issues when people who are not peers have a romantic relationship. That’s where we have potential abuses of power.

I’ve seen organizations attempt to outlaw all romantic relationships. I have not seen that work. I don’t see how to outlaw a real and integral part of ourselves.

Some organizations say, “It’s okay as long as you’re in different reporting structures.” That’s might work, as long as it’s not a senior manager involved. (I’ve seen too many senior managers attempt to have relationships with administrative assistants.)

Some organizations have gone as far as to say that the person with the least power or level in the hierarchy has to leave. I don’t buy that. (In heterosexual relationships, that’s almost always the woman.) That policy reinforces the idea that people at the top of the hierarchy have all the power and the people at the bottom have little or none.

Here’s my opinion: if we create an environment of respect, that means that the two people respect each other at work. They respect their colleagues. That means they don’t have sex at work. They don’t sexualize each other at work. They don’t make other people uncomfortable.

(Yes, I saw people at work having sex at work. They’d left the window blinds open, and I happened to look up from the parking lot. That office window was the only office with lights still on.  Something I cannot unsee.)

Oh, this includes conferences. I once went to a conference where I had to share a room with the female event planner. (She organized the booth, customer meetings, etc.) Our company wanted to save money, so we doubled up. I had worked the conference in the morning and met with customers that afternoon and dinner. I was tired and went to bed around 10 or so.

She came rolling into the room around midnight with a colleague of mine, another engineer. I woke up to the unmistakable sounds of people having sex. I sat up, looked over, recognized both idiots, and said, “I’m going to the bathroom and I’ll be out in two minutes. Man First Name, you need to leave by then.”

I came back out and he was still at it. I turned on the light and said, “Leave.”

More things I can never unsee.

He didn’t respect either of us that night. She apologized to me later, claiming she must have been drunk. He never did apologize.

Both of them didn’t respect me. I might go as far as to question their respect for each other. As far as I was concerned, their erstwhile relationship was their problem. It affected me because they didn’t consider me.

Note that we could have avoided this entire situation if my organization had been willing to spend the money to get everyone their own hotel rooms. Another sign of insufficient respect.

I bet you’ve seen other issues with romance at work.

However, when one person, the person with more organizational power, initiates a romantic relationship with a person with less organizational power, I see the potential for many problems. Too often, what I’ve seen is the person with the most power pressures the person with the least power. Too often, the person with the least power pays the organizational price. I’ve seen all of these possible outcomes for the person with the least power: their reputation suffers, they are passed over for promotion, they’re encouraged to leave, or they get fired.  The person with the power does not seem to suffer.

For me, that’s the power of the #MeToo movement. Now, people with the least power have a way to speak.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. However, we can’t ignore it. We are emotional and sexual beings. If we have intimate relationships at work, we need a way to do so that respects everyone involved: each of the two people, their colleagues, and the entire organization.

For me, this is about respecting each other and the context. Maybe if the guideline in organizations was, “Treat everyone with respect,” we could have more reasonable conversations about this.

Okay, now I think I can wrap up this series in the next post. The posts in this series:

4 Replies to “Respect and Romance in Organizations, Part 5”

  1. I guess you can’t help who you fall in love with and where/how you meet them. But I’ve always thought it wisest to keep your work box and your romantic-life box completely separate. If you want a partner, join a club, go to church, whatever — just say no to any attractions you feel at work.

    I came close once to crossing that line. It was shortly after my divorce and I was vulnerable. Thank heavens that ended up being a missed connection.

    The trouble with in-office romance is that the players can’t always keep work and personal relationships separate. Years ago I had two testers working for me that it turned out were seeing each other. Tester Jane would complain to Tester Joe in private about stuff and then Tester Joe would complain to me in our next 1:1 — classic triangulation. I felt like I shouldn’t have to deal with that in the office yet there I was. I ended up having to tell Tester Joe that if Tester Jane had a problem she needed to talk to me about it directly; until then I would take no action.

    At that company Support Rep Jill and Support Rep John were involved, but it was not widely known. Then John got promoted to manager. When it came out that he was involved with Jill, that reporting relationship had to end. The challenge was that Jill was an early employee with the company and was extremely well liked. Suddenly Jill moved into testing. Reporting to a different manager, I might add. I wasn’t happy about this arrangement; I thought it smelled of privilege. There might be other people inside the company more qualified than Jill who would have wanted that role if they had known it could be created.

    1. I agree with everything you said. I don’t know how to “prevent” people from romantic relationships at work. I don’t think we can.

      The problems you had with Testers Joe and Jane is classic and occurs even without a relationship. (I’ve managed that when the people were friends and one wanted to advocate for the other.) I’ve seen the Jill and John problems, too.

      Relationships are messy. (Okay, that might be the understatement of the year!) I wish we didn’t have to deal with them at work, and we do. I wish I had better suggestions.

  2. I reckon the long hours culture plays a part in this. It isn’t the whole thing but it’s part of it. If people can’t or won’t develop lives outside of work, you know what’s going to happen.

    1. Yes, I suspect the long hours are at least a part of it. I admit, when I was young (and single), I wasn’t sure how to develop friendships outside of work. It took me a while to learn how to do so. Part of my problem was I was new to Boston and did not have a network of friends here. Part of it is that even though I am an extrovert, I don’t always know how to talk to people who are not technical. I realize how nerdy that sounds, and I don’t think I am alone.

      It took me a while to learn that small talk didn’t have to be boring, that I could ask people to talk about themselves, and that I didn’t have to be the one who created sparkling conversations. When I gave myself permission to be not-so-perfect and open to possibilities, I did meet people who I could count as friends. I also stopped working so many hours and started to bicycle and work out in the gym. That helped me with fitness and with meeting people. If I had continued to work many hours, I would not have done that.

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