Personal Relationships in the Workplace

Good business is based on good relationships. People in the same industry, company or office often develop supportive friendships through their business interaction and association. But, what happens in the workplace when relationships get personal?

Our company doesn’t want to interfere with the personal lives of employees, but some friendships, romances or other personal relationships are inappropriate in the workplace. In fact, some personal interactions or relationships could violate laws or regulations that apply to our company.  Here are some examples of relationships that may or may not be appropriate.

– Alise and Alex are co-workers who are “just friends.” They need to take the same business trip and are planning to extend the trip to spend the weekend at a resort near the destination. The airline tickets cost the same as a weekday return flight, and they’ll stay in separate hotel rooms at the resort at their own expense. They’ve decided not to tell anyone about these plans.

– Tom and Marge met at the company picnic. They don’t work in the same area of the company but they have mutual friends in both departments. They’ve gone on two dates since the picnic and haven’t told anyone at the office because they feel it’s best to explore their friendship privately, without involving anyone at work.

– Tasha and Jorge met because Jorge is the rep at a vendor’s company and Tasha is a buyer. They’ve been dating for a few months. They know it’s against company policy but they are very careful to avoid physical displays of affection in any business setting. They limit their contact to sending each other email several times a day.

– Jacqui is Don’s supervisor. Last week Jacqui suggested that she and Don go out after hours to privately discuss work matters. It was clear to Don that her intentions were romantic and he’s not interested. He’s dodged subsequent requests but hesitates to say anything directly to Jacqui or anyone else.

Just Friends?

Alise and Alex’s “extended business trip” didn’t cost the company anything extra and took place over a weekend, so it wasn’t violating any policy. However, when their expense reports were turned in, their supervisor noticed that the two returned on Sunday evening and questioned them.  Their supervisor told them that they should have mentioned the plan in advance. When company records are involved, completely disclose any non-standard entries.

Tom and Marge are more than friends but they haven’t told anyone yet. When workplace romances “go bad” they can cause awkwardness for co-workers as well as for the couple themselves.  Since they are not in the same department and neither one works for the other, Tom and Marge are not out of line to keep their relationship quiet for now.

Conflicts of Interest

Tasha and Jorge are involved in a different scenario. Their relationship creates a conflict of interest because Tasha makes buying decisions that involve Jorge’s company. Another vendor who knows Jorge happened to see the couple out on a weekend and contacted Tasha’s boss about the issue.  Tasha should have disclosed the relationship and asked to be relieved of her responsibility with Jorge’s company. Incidentally, their frequent use of company email for personal communication is a violation of company policy and should be stopped immediately.

Harassment Potential

Any relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate introduces the possibility of sexual harassment.  Jacqui’s romantic overtures to Don could send the message that he will be rewarded on the job if he responds positively and penalized if he refuses her advances. Don is not interested in a relationship and should make that decision clear to Jacqui.  If Jacqui’s invitations continue, Don should report her actions to HR or the Ethics Helpline.  Incidentally, even if Don were romantically interested in Jacqui, the situation would be improper and a violation of company policy.

Evaluating Your Personal Relationships

When considering a personal relationship at the workplace, use these guidelines to examine the situation.

– First, determine whether the relationship violates the law or our company’s policies. If you have any questions about what types of relationship are allowed at our company, refer to our Code of Conduct or speak with the Compliance Department.

– Does the relationship appear improper, even if it does not directly violate our policies? Remember, perception is as important as reality.  If the relationship is perceived as improper, your effectiveness and efficiency at work can be seriously compromised.

– Are you concerned that disclosing the relationship could cause problems at work? No relationship can stay “secret” forever.  How will you react when your relationship becomes public? Does the relationship pose any risk of conflict of interest?  Even the appearance of a conflict of interest must be avoided. How will you handle changes in the relationship?  All relationships evolve over time.  How will your work life be affected if the relationship ends or grows more serious?

Question & Answer

I’m part of a large group working in a relatively small space. My supervisor roams the floor during the day, and often stops at my workstation to give me information or check my work. I feel uncomfortable because my supervisor often touches my shoulder, arm, or neck while chatting, or leans over my desk to show me something on my computer screen. Should I say something?

Yes. Tell your supervisor that this behavior feels uncomfortable to you, and ask him/her to maintain a comfortable distance from you when visiting your area. If your supervisor does not comply, speak to HR or the Ethics Officer about the situation.

One of my co-workers deliberately wears provocative clothing when top management comes to visit. My supervisor laughs it off and says he can’t tell my co-worker what to wear; my co-worker tells me that if I were smart, I’d wear something that gets me “noticed.” It’s true that she does get a lot of attention from this, but that’s not the kind of attention I want on the job.  Should I report this behavior?

Our company requires business clothing appropriate for the job.  Your co-worker’s provocative clothes and her comments about her intentions are inappropriate.  Since your supervisor “laughs it off,” report this to HR or to the Ethics Officer.

I love to dance and at a business function I danced with several co-workers. Is this out of line?

No, as long as the dancing was not provocative.

My girlfriend is a consultant and I want to recommend her for a job at our company. She won’t be working with me, and she won’t be an employee. Is this okay?

It’s okay for your girlfriend to submit a resume to the hiring manager. You may recommend her, but you may NOT be a part of the hiring process or supervise your friends work at our company.

I am a manager and I believe that two of my direct reports are dating.  What should I do?

Dating between co-workers is not against company policy.  As a manager, your job is to ensure that the relationship does not interfere with the work or the morale of your group.  Meet privately with the two and state your expectations for professional conduct, focus on the work, and harmony that includes all members of the work group.