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:
- Organizations Are Not Families, Part 1. Why the metaphor of family-as-org demeans the people working there.
- Build Respect in Organizations, Not Families, Part 2, had some ideas for building respect in terms of physical and psychological safety.
- Build Respect in Organizations, Not Families, Part 3 is about respect in management interactions with people.
- Build Respect in Organizations, Not Families, Part 4is about the organization’s policies treating people with respect.
- Respect and Romance in Organization, Part 5 is a little about love, sex and how to manage them at work.
- Families vs Organizations and Organizational Culture, Part 6 wraps it all up.