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A Real Life Example of Workplace Conflict over a Dating Relationship

The Ethics of Dating in the Workplace

Last week a reader of this blog asked questions about the ethical conflict they experienced in the workplace. The issue is one that many workers encounter so I decided to blog about what I believe is the appropriate action to take – at least in her situation.

The case involves an employee who became involved in a dating relationship with her boss. Even though the company did not, in general, prohibit employees from dating, it did preclude it when a superior gets involved with a subordinate especially when the former conducts performance evaluations of the employee. The reason is a potential conflict of interest exists that could taint the evaluation process because it compromises the objective judgment that should take place in performance evaluations. It is also unfair to other employees who might be judged more critically to make the dating employee look better.

The reader asked me what to do because the relationship was affecting her ability to complete an assignment for a client in which the two were involved because they were spending more time together during the working day including long lunches. She felt obligated to continue the relationship because of the superior-subordinate role and concern about what might happen if she changed the dynamic.

I have previously blogged about the perils of dating in the workplace. It concerns me because such dating opens the door to sexual harassment claims and other workplace behaviors if the relationship breaks down, especially if one employee dates a superior – someone who has a say about the progress of the employee in the firm.

Relationships between co-workers of similar stature are one thing, but relationships between supervisors and direct reports can be dangerous. Regardless of the culture or industry of any given company, clear communication about personal relationships among co-workers is vital. Employees must be made aware of where the boundaries are so that things that occur on personal time don’t become a distraction or a source of conflict in the workplace.”

Employees are human beings and as such they look to connect with another person. It’s understandable that workplace relationships might develop over time. After all, for some employees they spend more time at the office than at home. They also get to know their co-workers on a level that might build respect and trust, key elements in a lasting relationship. In an ideal world if a serious romantic relationship develops and there are reporting responsibilities, then one of the two employees involved should seek work elsewhere. I know that is easier said than done, especially in today’s economy.

So, what was my advice? First, I told the reader to ask herself what would happen if others in the company found out about the relationship. Would she feel guilty? How would she feel if other workers looked askance at her? Would she be able to explain it given that it violated company policy? I asked her to imagine that a loved one found out about the relationship and violation of company policy? Would she feel proud about it and able to defend it?

My final advice was to speak to the superior about putting aside the relationship until the current assignment was completed. After all, the client shouldn’t suffer or be charged for time that is not devoted to the project. I did get her to realize the unfairness of such behavior towards the client and the company that would be paying her for personal rather than time spent on work matters. Unfortunately, the superior did not respond very well to the request saying that “I put my career on the line for you and there is no turning back.”

The reader was torn between seeking advice from human resources and just quitting her job. The latter was a real option because of a strain in the relationship that had resulted from her suggestion of putting aside the relationship. I advised her to go to human resources to get the matter on record and take proactive measures to correct the situation. She did and, at least in her case, she was fortunate because other employees had reported similar relationships with the same superior so a pattern of abusing his position had developed that made what she said more credible. In the end the superior was given a warning about his actions and the employee was transferred to a different division.

My purpose in writing this blog is to get young workers to consider whether to even begin a workplace dating relationship. Because once you start done that road, it can be an ethical slippery slope with respect to how each party treats the other and fairness in the workplace may be compromised.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 28, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at www:ethicssage.com.