Fifty Shades of Office Romance

I shuddered as the phone rang once again. Busy days are the norm in Human Resources, but this one was turning out to be impossible. As soon as I put down the phone, it rang again.

"Maryanne, this is Pete from the Detroit office. I've got Mark, our division president, here with me. We've got a sticky situation we want to talk to you about before we take any action. It seems that two of our senior leaders were spotted Saturday night having what appeared to be a romantic dinner together. An employee from another department spotted them across the restaurant, though they didn't appear to see her. She observed them holding hands during dinner and they kissed at the door."

As we continued to talk and they answered my questions, I found out that:

· She reports to him.
· Both are married, although she is in the process of a divorce, and he may be separated from his wife, but that is not clear.
· They are both valued contributors.
· He heads up a significant line of business, and she's responsible for a key project within that business line.

During the discussion, Mark asked if they could be disciplined for violating company policy and I responded, “What company policy are they violating? We don’t prohibit dating – we only address family members in reporting relationships.” We’d given this a great deal of thought when creating out policies. We didn’t have the time or the desire to monitor personal relationships, and we trusted that our employees were adults and would act accordingly.

Pete exclaimed, “But what about our ethics policy? They’re both married!”

“Pete, we’re not in the business of regulating personal morality. Let’s look at the issues here. We’ve had one observation outside the workplace, and up until that time there was no indication that they were in a relationship. In fact, you were both surprised about it. There’s been nothing about the relationship that’s been an issue at work until now. What’s changed is that there is now a perception of a problem – that she may be receiving preferential treatment from him because of their reporting relationship and their personal friendship.”

“Have you considered making them part of the solution?” I asked. “Surely they’ve given this some thought and are aware that their personal relationship will have an impact at work on some level.”

“That’s good thinking, Maryanne,” said Mark. “I was blindsided by the news and may have jumped to conclusions. Now that I think about it, we may be able to move her project to another line of business.” Pete liked that solution and pointed out that if she were moved into a lesser role it could look like a disciplinary action and be perceived as discriminatory on our part – her job’s impacted, his isn’t – showing preferential treatment to him.

We agreed that Mark and Pete would meet with the couple together and let them know they'd been seen out together. They'd talk about the perception this creates and the problems that result from the perception, while reinforcing that they were both valued members of the leadership team. They'd ask the couple for their thoughts and brainstorm potential solutions. We agreed that no immediate action had to or would be taken until all of the options were thoroughly explored, and that they would follow up with me once the discussion had taken place.

As I took off my headset and took a deep breath to clear my head, I thought, "It's never black and white when you're dealing with people. There are always at least fifty shades of grey!"

Maryanne Robertson, SPHR
Chief HR Officer

P.S. Who is Maryanne Robertson, and why is she writing this blog? Stay tuned in the coming months to learn more!

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