The Management of Workplace Relationships

Essay by rsell01 December 2004

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In recent years the corporate workforce has become more diversified in gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. As a consequence the workforce at most major corporations is now more reflective of the general population than it was in the past. Yet the issue of diversity in the workplace is often not addressed or, in some cases, overlooked by management. Of particular interest is the management of interpersonal relationships of both heterosexual and homosexual employees in the workplace.

In a prosperous economic climate, corporations are often forced to compete for qualified employees. Many corporations have attempted to attract such employees by offering benefits that meet their lifestyle needs. Some examples of such benefits are on-site daycare and the recognition of same sex couples in terms of benefits. Benefits of this nature project an image of the corporation that emphasizes acceptance and fairness. These characteristics are highly valued by prospective employees and are one of the primary factors considered when choosing between competing offers.

From a management perspective the interpersonal relationships of employees is a delicate issue that requires attention. Management must recognize that the workforce is a diverse ever-changing entity. To that end management must assess the lifestyle needs of the workforce and integrate that into the corporate policy in such a way as to not adversely affect other areas. To accomplish this, management must constantly evaluate and evolve corporate policy to address the issues that will undoubtedly arise.

The complications of workplace relationships are varied. There are obvious cases of problems within the relationship that are directly observable and able to be managed. But there are also cases where complications arise outside of the relationship. An important aspect of the management of interpersonal relationships is the ability to detect and resolve these complications fairly.

In discussing the management of interpersonal relationships in the workplace, it is important to clarify what is typically considered a workplace relationship. Most corporations that acknowledge relationships between employees, and subsequently have policies restricting their behavior, define a workplace relationship as that of a legally married heterosexual couple. In recent times some corporations have changed their policy to include same sex partners or spousal equivalents in their definition of a workplace relationship. Regardless of whether or not they are formally recognized by the organization, the majority of issues that face married heterosexual employees in a workplace relationship also apply to heterosexual and same sex partners who are not married. For the purposes of this paper we will consider both married and unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples as a being involved in a workplace relationship.

When it comes to workplace relationships, corporations are fearful of all of the associated pitfalls. Generally, an employer will document certain corporate policies pertaining to who can be in a relationship with another employee. Some common restrictions are that managers are prohibited from relationships with their subordinates or that a couple is not supposed to work for the same manager. More often than not, there is an unwritten workplace code that employees should not start relationships from within the same group because of the possible negative consequences. Most corporations will also subject employees to workplace diversity or compliance training where the new employees will learn what is considered appropriate behavior. This usually includes sensitivity training for correctly dealing with diverse employee groups and various sexual harassment issues. Even small companies require these types of policies and training because many types of relationships exist in the work environment, including the introduction of same sex relationships in the workforce. As a result of today's lawsuit prone environment, corporations are more fearful than ever of impropriety by their employees. The training and rules are designed to avoid the costly litigation involved in harassment suits and the requisite problems that evolve from relationships. Corporations realize the importance of stopping such claims and limiting their liability by enforcing these laws. The problem though, as with any corporate decree, is that it is only as strong as the managers who implement the policies.

The first step for a corporation is to put the policy into writing. If a corporation does not have a written policy on workplace relationships, all that is left are unwritten rules. Unwritten rules are left up to the manager to determine what is right, wrong, and the enforcement for that part of the organization. This leads to chaos because there are no management mediation techniques, no way for the employees to know they are about to cause organizational friction, and no common implementation from managers. On the other end of the spectrum, a few companies have gone as far as Aerotek, a high-tech temp agency with a strict no-dating-at-work rule.1 Once the policy is completed, the next step is to communicate the policy to not only the managers, but also the employees. There are several ways the corporation can choose to notify their employees of any policy changes. First, managers need to attend training and orientation classes to learn how to effectively handle any situation and to receive materials on how to correctly disseminate the information to their employees. Managers will need to sit down with their group and spell out the issues. There is danger here in how the manager communicates the policies. If the manager does not respect the policy and the employees notice, the rules will be ineffective in prohibiting problems. In addition, if the employees are used to policies which the corporation does not enforce, the manager may be unable to convince their subordinates of the policy's importance.

Regardless of corporate policies, employees usually know what their managers expect from them. Some managers stick to the rules word for word while most shape the rules to their style and liking. Lower level managers may not recognize the downside risk of certain workplace relationships, specifically those where both employees are in the same work group. It is easy for managers to see decreased productivity but it is impossible to predict future problems. A manager is likely to ignore these relationships if the employees are responsible and don't let their outside lives effect the work life. Some managers even encourage relationships because of the emotional bond that they have formed with their employees. When it does become a problem though, it may be too late to save the group dynamic. Managers have a tendency to trust that their employees will always behave professionally, but when it comes to emotions, work usually takes a backseat. The truth is that over the past 20 years, sexual harassment lawsuits have gone from zero to over 15,000 complaints filed annually with the Federal Equal Opportunity Commission.1 The costs of inaction are clear. One only needs to look at the problems introduced in the United States White House to see the harm and disruption that can be caused in the workplace. Thus, it is important for the manager to communicate the corporate policies clearly and recognize the possibility of problems. It is also important for the corporation to clearly define the problems associated with workplace relationships so the managers will take the policies more seriously. It is important to note that it is only when the relationship causes work related problems that the manager should act. In addition, once a manager discovers a new relationship within the group, it is important to communicate the corporate policy again to avoid any confusion.

Another aspect of corporate workplace relationship policies is relationship contracts. Some companies, to avoid harassment and relationship based litigation, require employees involved in a workplace relationship to declare such status to the human resource department. The human resource department will require the couple to sign a legal contract protecting the company from any problems which may result due to their relationship. The contract will state that in spite of all the risks that you independently and collectively desire to undertake and pursue a mutually consensual social and amorous relationship. If the employees refuse to sign the contract, one or both of the employees may be terminated as a result. The company can promote workplace relationships this way and still protect themselves from future problems. This still does not protect the group from relationship problems which affect the group dynamic.

An overlooked segment of corporate policies relates to homosexual employees. It is important for homosexual employees to have a safe, productive, and open work environment. If the corporation does not have a written policy on harassment issues, the homosexual employees will feel like they do not fully belong to the organization. Consequently, homosexual employee's work suffers because of the mistrust, alienation, and emotional conflict about not being able to reveal the truth. It gets much worse when there is a homosexual relationship in the same work group. Not only must they hide their sexual orientation, but also their relationship. When companies have firm written rules about non-traditional relationships and discrimination practices, it makes it easier for the mentioned employees to feel comfortable about who they are and not worry about anything except doing the job.

When it comes to homosexual employees, extra policies must be adopted and followed because of the harassment that they are sometimes subjected to in the workplace. The fact is that discrimination and harassment of gays is perfectly legal in most of America. Gays can lose their jobs, homes, kids, and sometimes their lives with little or no recourse available to them. There is no federal protection for gay citizens provided by the U.S. Constitution or Congress. As of the end of 1994, only one-third of the Fortune 1,000 companies had nondiscrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation.2 Because of this, it is important for corporations, large and small, to create an inclusive environment for all of their employees. Managers must push for and implement the non-discrimination policies for the good of the organization. Management should also recognize that employees cannot be satisfied with their job without first satisfying the environmental and social problems which are inherent for homosexual employees. Written and enforced corporate policies go a long way towards helping satisfy those lower order needs.

All corporate policies are ineffective if the company does not follow through with penalties for those who choose not to follow them. Organizations should have formal written guidelines on what a manager should do if such a problem occurs. Once a manager recognizes a problem, the first step should be to discuss the situation in a friendly environment. It is important for the manager not to confront the employee openly when other employees are present or to address the issue in a hostile fashion. The manager needs to explain what they have noticed and what they think the issue could be. The employee should be given a chance to explain what the problem is. Next, the employee must present what they can do to rectify the situation. The employee then needs to be given time to fix the problem. If the problem continues, the manager can try talking to the subordinate again or forward the issue to the human resource department. It is then up to the human resource employees to handle the problem. The human resource department is better at handling these issues because they do not have the emotional attachment component that the manager may have. The human resource department will be intimately familiar with the policy and can better explain the problems and consequences to the employee. A manager might be willing to work out the employee's issues and give a lot of time for them to change but this may cause unwanted group resentment to the special treatment. Managers need to realize that they have many employees and that they cannot give special treatment to any one individual without compensating other subordinates in some similar fashion.

A common cause of resentment among heterosexual employees is the topic of same-sex partner benefits. Most heterosexual individuals do not recognize the validity of same-sex partners and do not think they deserve to have similar benefits to that of married couples. A study done in 1993 showed that although 70% of Fortune 1000 companies claimed to not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, just over 5% had domestic partner benefits. For a corporation to be competitive in the workforce and retain homosexual employees and customers, they must be inclusive. Some companies worry that they may suffer a financial loss from the backlash of implementing such a policy, but studies have shown that none of the organizations that have implemented these benefits have suffered a loss of either customers or employees.2 Many gay and lesbian people take the availability of these benefits as a signal that an employer values diversity, that the employer in fact wants all its people treated fairly and equitably. The cost of partner benefits is not high. First of all, a large number of gays and lesbians are not going to self-identify. In addition, most of those partners are working and are covered elsewhere. Finally, despite the cost of AIDS, the costs of other medical events ? complicated pregnancies for example ? are higher in the traditional family. At the same time, it is important to provide heterosexual employees with domestic partner benefits. This provides an equitable policy for the entire organization.

Once the company has a policy regarding workplace relationships, harassment, and benefits, it becomes time for the managers to take this information and decide how this effects their group. The manager is then responsible for implementing the corporate policy. The possible consequences of unproductive workplace relationships are probation, forced reassignment, or termination. As long as the employee works to fix the workplace problems, and there is no harassment involved, termination should not be an issue. More commonly the employee would be reprimanded by the manager and human resources and be allowed to work through the issue. If the employee and their partner are working together in the same group, a preferred solution would be for one of the employees to transfer to another group. A transfer can eliminate a lot of issues which come up when both employees work together and may be the best solution for the company and the workplace relationship. Some company policies will mandate that married employees cannot work under the same manager and one of the employees will be required to transfer. Termination can also become a problem though, even when the employees are in different groups. If the employee is preoccupied about something personal that happens in the relationship and it causes constant and long-term work degradation, termination may be the only solution for the manager and human resources department. These situations can be reduced if the company policies and consequences are spelt out clearly when employees go through initial orientation as well as when a relationship starts.

When an organization refuses to stand behind its nondiscrimination policies with real actions, such as inclusive education, domestic partner benefits, and public support, it is counting on an unspoken rule of the workplace to mysteriously take effect. This rule is that all the employees will put business before everything and act as though their own opinions, ideals, and beliefs are checked at the door in consideration of the common good. However, such a reaction is rarely, if ever, the case when homosexual employees are involved, especially when the issue at hand is so volatile. A manager must look at productivity and motivation. If you have a workplace team in which two of the people conflict because one is homophobic and the other is openly and comfortably gay, your challenge is not to change either of their minds. Your challenge is not getting the employees to accept each other but rather a business problem. The employees do not have to learn to like each other but rather how to work together. In situations where the heterosexual employee cannot handle the situation, they will have to transfer or they will most likely end up being terminated.

Other corporate policies can involve nepotism. Most corporations will clearly state that a manager cannot hire a relative or spouse to work under them. Most large companies, like Bell Atlantic and Digital Equipment Corporation, will state that an employee can not influence the hiring process in any way. This includes the hiring of outside firms run by a relative regardless of their qualifications. Such nepotistic actions will generally result in the termination or transfer of the newly hired employees and termination of the offending manager.

Managers will not always follow corporate policy so it is important for the human resource department to make sure that nothing discriminatory happens. When it comes to work place relationships, some managers can be expected to act against corporate policy or avoid the situation at all costs. By taking the "don't ask, don't tell" position, the manager can avoid the situation in most cases. Some managers may just ignore that the relationship exists all together to avoid having to deal with it, or possibly losing their employees. These stances probably cause more harm than good because they don't address the possible problems and leave room open for large issues to arise. It is more important to have good communication with your subordinates.

When it comes to same sex relationships, managers must put aside any personal beliefs and perceptions about their different employees. Some people may find this very hard to do and will not be able to tactfully deal with these scenarios. In these cases, the manager will most likely project their negative feelings about the employee and create a poor work environment. The manager may create a bad environment in other ways by assigning undesirable job tasks, jobs which they know the employee cannot complete, limiting compensation and career advancement. This is a way for the manager to force the unwanted employees out of the group. Employees need to recognize these situations and report them to the human resource department. A manager also needs to realize when their subordinates are discriminating against one employee and take quick and decisive action. This is where a good discrimination policy can eliminate bad work conditions and remove non-productive employees.

Couples working in the same company will experience some unique challenges because of their relationship. Many of the complications will depend on how closely couples work together. Issues such as personal conflict, affection, children, changing jobs, and the sharing of corporate information are all different complications couples will be forced to address.

Personal conflict within a relationship can cause problems in the workplace. During a conflict, couples that have easy access to each other during the day can have some performance degradation above and beyond normal anxiety of being in a domestic conflict. Work related interaction is often the reason couples meet one another in the first place, and hence, the initial steps that lead up to a relationship. Once in the work environment, normal business reasons are the initiator of communication, but personal issues become commonplace conversation. When in a conflict, couples end up taking time out of the workday to talk about the issue without notice by others, since interaction for business reasons is necessary. The opposite effect, personal avoidance, is also a result of personal conflict. In one case regarding a couple that worked together closely, conflict within the relationship would impede performance, because they would avoid one another until resolved. These conflicts caused work requiring each other's assistance not to be performed. On the other hand, many couples are able to put their problems completely aside at work, and find no additional issues with working in the same place during conflict. Many couples insist there are only benefits to working together, and are always able to leave their problems at home.

Affection in the workplace has many aspects, and various opinions. Public affection in the workplace, such as hand holding, hugging, and kissing is universally avoided during work hours. Such behavior is viewed as inappropriate, and professionalism prevails, at least publicly. However, differences in opinion regarding particular situations exist. Couples handle affection differently in cases where they are outside of the work area during work hours, or in the case where they are on work property, but before the workday starts. Some people say they have no problem kissing or hugging "goodbye" after lunch or in the parking lot before going their separate ways. Those who participate in such activities generally think nothing of it, even if people that work for the same company were in the same restaurant or vicinity. In only one case did someone say they felt slightly uncomfortable. In this particular instance, for 10 to 15 seconds the couple would hug and kiss goodbye before getting out of the car when returning from lunch. The level of comfort depended on whether other employees could see them.

Another point couples address when working at the same company is the effect on children. The majority of parents actually feel it is easier to bring small children to work, because it means they are able to transport the child to their partner's work location very easily when there is a need. However, parents also mention that by working for the same company, both parents had the same standard set of holidays. This means that when a child is off from school, it is more likely that both parents will be expected to be at work, making it more likely the child would be joining them in the work environment.

People involved in relationships who look for jobs will often encounter the opportunity to work at the same company. Besides meeting at work, another common way for couples to work for the same company is while looking for jobs in a new geographical area that requires moving. The most interesting data point for couples looking for jobs is that many times employment opportunities for one partner will arise while the other partner is interviewing for a job. This occurs in several different ways. Often the person being interviewed will mention that a condition of accepting the job is dependent upon the ability of their partner to find a job in the same new geographical area. This leads to the interviewer getting information through their human resource department to find positions that the partner could interview for. In this scenario, it is then up to the couple to interview well enough to both receive offers for employment. The advantage gained by the couple that leads to both being employed by the same company is the help they get accessing information about job availability. There are many cases of jobs being offered to both partners. In one case, the interviewer mentioned that they were aware the interviewee had a partner that was looking for a position, and then proceeded to offer the partner a job on the spot without solicitation. Often times, a person will accept a job with a new company with the understanding that their partner will then have a better opportunity of getting a job once they have secured employment for themselves. This is because many companies provide information about job openings to employees first, then turn to publicizing the position. The employee with a partner looking for a job has a time advantage that often leads to partner employment. In addition, the internal employee will often have additional information about desirable skills can make a potential candidate for a position more attractive.

Another very interesting issue arising from relationships in the workplace is the information that couples share that would normally not be available to them. This turns out to be a very significant issue. Under normal circumstances, managers in the corporate environment have access to certain metrics and information that are not available to non-management employees. Information such as salaries, benefits, policies, and raises are closely kept secrets by management. Also, certain information between different company divisions is not normally shared. However people in relationships share this information with each other, often breaking the code. These are items that managers need to know in order to prepare for them such as changes in company policy or reorganizations. Many times the information shared would eventually be available to their partner, but just not in the same timeframe. Some information, however, would never be available to the general employee population. Information such as pay scales and special benefits are many times shared only with those who need to know or those who are participating in such programs. Quite often information about special benefits, such as bonuses or company options, are shared with partners. This type of information is specifically not shared with employees who do not participate because company policy forbids it. Managers are trained to keep confidential material to themselves. In addition, managers often have the added incentive of participating in programs that they are told to keep confidential. Certainly, sharing such information with life long partners is necessary to make financial decisions. But in less permanent relationships, the partner who is not a participator in such benefits has information meant only for those chosen to participate, or those trained to keep it confidential. This breach of confidentiality is much more likely to occur, and slip into the ranks of peers who are not managers.

A special complication of workplace relationships is dealing with the issue of nepotism. Although a buzzword in the corporate world, nepotism among couples is rarely an issue. Even in situation where people in relationships feel the opportunity for employment was gained through a partner or relative, rarely do couples feel their employment is viewed as nepotistic. In fact, just the opposite was stated. Many people in relationships feel the companies they work for encourage relationships among employees, as long as corporate policy was adhered to. It is difficult to determine whether such a view is accurate, or simply self-justification. Feeling that one's employment is viewed upon as nepotism is more likely amongst relatives. Rarely do the relatives feel it is looked upon negatively by their peers.

The diversification of the corporate workforce has changed the way in which management must deal with workplace relationships. Whether formally acknowledged or not, they are a common occurrence in today's corporate environment that must be addressed.

The administration and management of employees is, at the very least, complicated by workplace relationships. From an organizational perspective it is advantageous to have a stated, written policy regarding interpersonal relationships in the workplace. To be effective it is important that the corporation properly communicate the policy to the managers and the employees. If properly implemented such a policy will serve to reduce the legal liability of the corporation and explicitly define what is considered a conflict of interest. It should also state what the corporation will tolerate in terms of a workplace relationship and how it will react to complications that arise from it. In most cases it is the responsibility of the frontline manager to enforce this policy.

The implementation of corporate policy is usually executed at the frontline management level. It is the responsibility of the frontline manager to recognize the relationship and ensure that it does not become a workplace issue. When problems occur, the frontline manager must enforce the corporate policy based fairly and authoritatively. From the data gathered, it appears this is the area most in need of improvement.

In general, workplace relationships seem to be a positive for both the employer and the employee. From the perspective of the people involved in the personal relationship it offers many advantages such as convenience and increased benefits. For the corporation workplace relationships provide committed, career minded employees who are less likely to change jobs as often. But when complications arise, it is important that a policy is in place and management is properly trained to effectively deal with the situation.