Should You or Shouldn't You?
The following discussion and case study is taken from my newly published book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. The book is available for sale on Amazon.
According to a Harris Poll conducted from November 28 to December 20, 2017, that included a representative sample of 809 full-time workers across industries and company sizes in the U.S. private sector, 36 percent of workers reported dating a coworker. Twenty-two percent of workers have dated someone who was their boss at the time, and 30 percent of those said they dated someone who was at a higher level in the organization than they were.
There appears to be a generation gap on whether dating in the workplace has positive or negative effects, according to a survey of employed millennials by Workplace Options.
- 84 percent of millennials (23-39 years old as of 2019) say they would engage in romance with a coworker compared to 36 percent of Generation X workers (ages 40-54 as of 2019), and only 29 percent of baby boomers (ages 55-75 as of 2019).
- 71 percent of millennials see a workplace romance as having positive effects, such as improved performance and morale.
- 40 percent of millennials report no negative effects whatsoever from an office romance; only 10 percent of older workers shared that sentiment, meaning a majority of Americans feel more harm can be done than good.
- 54 percent say that if they had a romantic relationship with a colleague, they would share information about it with others—either friends, coworkers, or via social networks.
Consider the following case. The names have been changed to protect all parties.
Brenda spends a lot of time in the office with Mark, her supervisor. They work closely together and have learned much about each other. Brenda has grown fond of Mark, respects his intelligence, and knows he has the kind of influence in the office that can be helpful to her career. She also feels Mark understands her, and the demands of working sixty-hour weeks. He’s also familiar with office politics, which Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines as the activities, attitudes, or behaviors that are used to get or keep power or an advantage within a business or company. Given the long hours, Brenda has been unable to develop a romantic relationship outside work.
One day Mark asks Brenda to dinner. Thinking it’s work related, Brenda agrees. Mark confides that he has feelings for her that go beyond employer–employee. He asks Brenda to go to the opera on Saturday and says he has center orchestra seats for La Bohème, by Puccini. It’s her favorite opera, and the opportunity to see it for the first time is an offer too good to refuse.
After the opera and another dinner, Mark asks Brenda to date more frequently. Brenda likes Mark a lot on a personal level and is tempted to say yes. However, she is concerned about becoming involved with someone who is her direct supervisor. The company has no policy on dating.
Should Brenda agree to the dating relationship?
The key ethical question is: Is it ethical for Brenda to date someone with authority over her in the workplace? Here are my thoughts:
- Does Brenda expect to be treated favorably by Mark because of the relationship? Others may perceive favoritism. Appearances count and it may seem to other employees that Mark treats Brenda differently because of the relationship.
- Mark is responsible for evaluating Brenda’s performance, so Brenda should ask whether she wants to put him in a position where he may have to choose between giving her a good performance evaluation because of the dating relationship or being truthful about her performance. Thinking about these issues in advance enables her to make an informed decision.
- Other employees may resent Brenda if it is perceived she is given favorable treatment by Mark because of the dating relationship. If she and Mark break up, can there be a “silent exit,” or might Mark start treating her differently, especially if Brenda ends the relationship? Will it affect her performance evaluations? Seeing her ex and working together may be awkward, affect her performance, and lead to a hostile work environment. The possibility exists of a sexual harassment claim down the road.
- Assuming the company has no policy on dating, they would not be breaking any However, doing what is ethical is what’s most important. Ethical people do not need rules to help them distinguish right from wrong. Saying the ends of finding a good dating partner exceed the means of putting both her and Mark in a compromising position is rationalizing a questionable, if not unethical, act.
What Should Brenda Do?
What Should Brenda do? Brenda might ask: What are her intentions in getting involved in the dating relationship with Mark? Is it to engage in a satisfying relationship? Might it bring her happiness? These are things that satisfy her needs for love and belongingness. On the other hand, Brenda must carefully consider whether her real motivation is to have Mark in her corner at work, help with office politics, and have an advantage over others in the performance evaluation system. These are self-serving motivations that might upset office dynamics because of the dating relationship. Her relationship with coworkers may be affected.
To have ethical intent, Brenda must be motivated to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Can we say engaging in a dating relationship with your superior at work is the right thing to do? It wouldn’t seem so because there are no perceptible benefits for the organization.
This is situation in which doing what is legal and doing what is ethical are not the same. It’s legal for Mark and Brenda to date but doing so creates an entanglement that can put one party or the other in a compromised position. Hiding the relationship would create a slippery slope condition whereby each party may have to lie about or obscure the truth to cover up their dating relationship for the sake of workplace harmony. Brenda should consider whether she would feel comfortable defending the relationship if others in the organization found out and were verbally critical of the relationship or posted critical comments online because of performance evaluation concerns.
What should Brenda do? To protect her own interests, Brenda might ask Mark to discuss the matter with higher-ups in the organization to clarify they have no objection to a dating relationship. Beyond that, Mark would be wise to suggest he be removed from supervising Brenda to avoid any conflict of interest.