11

Let's get this out of the way first: sensibility says the answer is going to be "the safest option is to not let it happen in the first place". I'm fully aware, and already considering that as an option. I'd like to instead focus the answers here on the risks involved in fraternizing, and ways to manage them should this come to pass.


I've become somewhat emotionally entangled with a coworker (we'll call him/her Z). Not in any kind of serious romantic sense - but we've been spending considerable time out of the office as friends, and have recently expressed a mutual attraction to each other and a willingness to indulge in it.

The situation in the office is that I'm Z's immediate superior. I only manage a small team (4 of us including myself), but my input counts heavily toward each of their performance reviews, raises, and promotions.

Background on the office culture itself: it's a smaller office, 20-30 people, recently grown from single digits. There haven't been any established/announced policies on fraternizing, but the company culture is famously open and accepting. There is also a strong religious undercurrent, with the majority of my coworkers being alumni from the same religious university. Overall, the office is very informal and close, and focuses much more on interpersonal practices than official policies or regulations, which makes it very difficult to predict how well our interaction will be received.

I have very mixed feelings on how to approach this:

  • My initial instinct is that transparency is always best, and if Z and I intend to dive in, then management should be aware of the possible conflict of interest and the steps I'm taking to remain professional and unbiased. Keeping it a secret has potential to damage a lot of relationships if we're found out.
  • On the other hand, opening that can of worms in the first place involves risk, since it's difficult to determine what management's reaction will be. If even mentioning our potential interaction is going to damage Z's position or mine, I'd rather shut things down and avoid it altogether.
  • On the third hand, part of me thinks we should do what makes us happy, remain professional and discreet in the office, and let the chips fall where they may - people may not even care, as long as I'm not playing favorites. Injecting this into the office environment may just be asking for trouble unnecessarily.

I very much want to continue enjoying my time with Z, so I'm only considering walking away from it as a last resort. How do I pursue a personal interaction with Z and keep us out of trouble? Are we even going to be in trouble if we come forward?

I haven't brought this up with Z yet, but I intend to get their opinion and agree with them on a best course of action before doing anything. I'm just gathering information and discovering options at this point.

  • 4
    I suspect the answer is company specific and culture specific. – keshlam Nov 11 '15 at 22:29
  • @keshlam I hadn't considered that - do people's reactions vary a lot? I was hoping there would be some common threads to learn from regardless of culture. – WritingPhreak Nov 11 '15 at 22:40
  • Yes, human behavior varies a great deal between cultures, and between company cultures. In some, any fraternization is frowned upon. In some, it's only an issue when there's a power dynamic -- manager and one of his/her own subordinates. In some, it is accepted that co-sorkers can be friends "off duty"; in others everyone jumps to conclusions about what the friendship means. Find out what your company's policies are, and understand how your part of your country views such things. Consider what happens if the two of you have a misunderstanding or otherwise end the friendship. Unsafe, but... – keshlam Nov 12 '15 at 0:36
  • This sounds to me more like on of those "it's already going to happen ya'll, but go ahead and chime in"... but hey , who knows – Adel Nov 12 '15 at 2:54
  • 2
    @Adel on the contrary, it's not happening unless i can be sure theres a way to be safe about it. I do really want it to happen, but not if the cost is too high - and I don't have enough experience to determine that myself. – WritingPhreak Nov 12 '15 at 3:22
15

The very short answer is that fraternizing a direct report is unethical, risky for the company, and I think it's actually criminally risky for you by way of sexual harassment by way of power over someone you are romantically engaged with. Furthermore, in a small company, you will still hold manager-like power over non-direct reports, so this is a no-go.

Regarding the "sexual harassment" point, I am certainly not a lawyer, but you might want to talk to one about this before proceeding. I'm serious. The best advice you can get on this forum will scratch the surface of how hairy this situation can be should you choose to proceed.

Large companies usually have clear policies and separate actors. It's possible that HR will condone employee dating but prohibit managers dating reports (that's you), firstly to protect the company. But I think this might actually be far scarier in a young company. In the perception of your other coworkers, your CEO, your board, your potential future investors, your future hires, future business relations, and even your partner, you are engaging in favoritism.

You will give a raise or write a performance review for your partner, who, even if you were not romantic with, half of your colleagues are going to be unhappy about anyway. You will have no ethical option: speak well of your partner, and risk the ire of everyone but your partner? All the worse if they are indeed struggling. Or introduce a terrifying element of power in your relationship with your partner by speaking poorly of them? In one case, sexual favoritism - again, in the eyes of your business relations (and possibly a judge you explain this to in the future) - is the input; in the other case, it is the output.

Companies blow up over this. CEOs have resigned during IPOs over former relationships while unmarried. Investors don't fund companies that are going to blow up.

The best option is to discontinue the relationship or to exit the company.

  • +1 While the tone is a bit dire for my tastes, I hear what you're saying. This definitely isn't a long-term prospect, for either of us - Z and I have already discussed that. I don't think the next 20 years are going to see me in a position where any IPOs hinge on my reputation, but I think you're right that there's a lot of potential for bad stuff for such a temporary and short-term pursuit. – WritingPhreak Nov 12 '15 at 3:38
  • 2
    Exactly my thoughts on this. I would add that there is a third option where either the OP or "Z" could move to a different position in the company where their jobs wouldn't have any overlap. – Lilienthal Nov 12 '15 at 10:54
  • 3
    @Lilienthal I think no, because it's a very small company and the OP is in a management position, and will thus have significant power no matter how the management chain. I think in a larger company it would still be sensitive and risky but not to such an extreme point. – user42272 Nov 12 '15 at 13:56
  • @djechlin Ah yes true, in a company of 20-30 that's going to be difficult, especially if they grew organically and don't really have separate departments. – Lilienthal Nov 12 '15 at 14:16
  • 1
    @WritingPhreak What will you do after the short term fun is over and you still have to do Z's performance review? – Eric Nov 13 '15 at 3:17
14

If you think a relationship with a subordinate is not gong to affect the work place then think again. If you think people are not going to figure it out then think again. If you think you can remain unbiased then think again. Just asking may impact your job. Not saying don't do it but there are consequences. If this could be the love of your life and you would regret not giving it a chance then go for it but be aware a lot could go wrong. Most relationships are not until death do us part.

Bill Gates married a subordinate and it worked. Bill Gates is just an off the wall example of a supervisor that married a subordinate. I just picked that example as it is a known name. Have known a few mid and first level managers that also that had successful relationships with subordinates but I am not going to share their names. It is not common but it is done and some times it works.

I know it was TV but just the other day a person said those two are dating. And the other person said how do you know. And the person said I am an intelligence analyst and they leave at the same time and take separate exits. As much as you try how you engage will be different and some people will pick up (and they may not care).

  • 4
    @djechlin You seem to have many opinions on bad answers and down votes. Why not step on out with an answer of your own and set us strainght? – paparazzo Nov 12 '15 at 0:58
  • 3
    because, like you, I do not have a good answer. – user42272 Nov 12 '15 at 1:03
  • 5
    Bill Gates was in a bullet proof position at Microsoft. It isn't really comparable. – user1450877 Nov 12 '15 at 12:28
  • 4
    @user1450877 You really think I was comparing the OP to Bill Gates? Move on. – paparazzo Nov 12 '15 at 12:33
  • 2
    None of us know what to make of your "Bill Gates" sentence. You need to edit your answer to make it more clear what point you are trying to make with him. In particular it's unclear if you're saying Bill Gates is one in a billion so definitely don't try to be like him, or if Bill Gates was in such a scrutinized position of such great power and make it work that of course the OP could give it a shot. – user42272 Nov 12 '15 at 19:25
9

How do I pursue a personal interaction with Z and keep us out of trouble?

I'll be blunt, if you want to pursue this, one of you should look for a job elsewhere, office romances are great on TV, but can be incredibly messy in reality. It's dangerous enough when both are equal, but when one is subordinate to the other its going to create havoc with discipline and morale amongst the rest of the workers.

I won't go into the personal pitfalls you will face as well.

This is all just common sense stuff, and a few failed romances I have seen over the years which tend to end bitterly for both and affected their working reputations as well. If you've ever seen a full blown domestic in public you'll know what I mean, and even a mild one in the workplace is tantamount to stabbing your career in the foot, those sorts of things make a lasting impression. Some people do not like seeing shows of affection in the workplace either. It's OK if it's a visiting spouse bringing lunch, but when it's more often it's another story.

So by all means get married and live happily ever after or some temporary approximation of such, but don't do it at work.

I have seen many good marriages between people who met at work and one left to work elsewhere.

8

I have seen many of these relationships in my time in the workplace. I have seen exactly one that did not cause hate and discontentment and organizational chaos.

In the one that worked, several things applied that made it work.

The subordinate was known to be extremely competent before the relationship started, so her promotions (she was the most junior person) during the relationship were not controversial.

The supervisor was willing to publicly criticize the subordinate and she was able to accept that it had to be done publicly for their own credibility.

They never displayed personal affection at the workplace. No smoldering glances, no hand holding, no kissing, etc. No touching at all. They always maintained professionalism.

The supervisor made assignments that ensured that all team members working for him had some of the more interesting work and work appropriate to their level of skill. The subordinate did not get or even ask for all of the most desired tasks.

There was no talking on the part of the subordinate about things that she would not have knowledge of if she had not been in the relationship. I mean things like steps the manager was taking to deal with a performance issue of one of the other subordinates, information of critical plans that management had not yet shared with staff such as the plans for a buyout by another company or an upcoming layoff. So it is critical that the subordinate be someone who can keep his or her mouth shut on confidential information and/or the supervisor can be quiet about passing along things that the subordinate should not know at this time.

Any personal fights they had were not brought into the workplace. Ever.

None of the other team members ever showed any resentment of the situation or made any official complaints.

The organization itself was relatively tolerant of relationships between employees since we traveled over 50% of the time and about 80% of the employees were single . So being open about the relationship was less risky than it might be in another organization.

The organization was large enough that if there had been a problem (as there were in many other relationships at the same place), they could easily be moved to different teams

They did not break up and eventually got married (I was supervising her at the time and took her on an 8 week business trip two days after their wedding, that's the kind of dedication to her job that she had.) and stayed married until years later when one of them died.

I do want to add that I no way think this is a good idea. Just that I have once seen it work and what the conditions were. I also think that the circumstances and the personality types that could make it work are vanishingly rare. And even more rare when you realize that the small percentage of people who could make it work have to fit both of you and the small percentage of office situations where it might work has to fit your office including the other people on your team and the other managers as well as the office culture in general. I also want to point out that if the relationship does not work out, you have just destroyed the career of your subordinate who will likely end up fired or ostracized by her/his coworkers until quitting. It is a risk for you, it is a much higher risk for your subordinate.

  • It's also helpful if you are not in the same reporting structure. My company basically enforces as policy that you cannot really be in a relationship/married to someone in a similar structure. If it happens, they facilitate intercompany moves to avoid it. This helps avoid a lot of problems, but we're big enough that it's logistically possible in a reasonable timeframe. – enderland Nov 12 '15 at 16:13
  • 2
    @enderland, I agree that it is not optimal to have subordinate supervisor relationships and I have seen very many truly awful things as a result of such relationships. However, others have dealt with those issues, I wanted to show the perspective of what I have seen that worked. I would estimate less that 1% of all employees could meet these success conditions. And both employees need to be in that 1%. – HLGEM Nov 12 '15 at 16:18
5

Let's get this out of the way first: sensibility says the answer is going to be "the safest option is to not let it happen in the first place". I'm fully aware, and already considering that as an option. I'd like to instead focus the answers here on the risks involved in fraternizing, and ways to manage them should this come to pass.

Sounds to me like you'd like to have your cake and eat it too. I think you know what the "right" thing to do is, but you're trying to validate your desire not to it. With that being said, here's pretty much the only reason worth "diving in" for:

You love him/her, and you think (s)he's (potentially) The One

Potential problems:

1) There is a general taboo against office relationships in most western countries. While there may not be a policy in place at the moment, if you announce your relationship you may soon find one established, and your hand forced. (This happened at my current job. They were told one of them had to find a new job - this is in Canada)

2) There is no scenario where you are his/her boss that is ethical. This person must be moved from your team, but your company is pretty small, so just how far out from under your influence will this person be?

3) Separating your love life from your work life is going to be very difficult. It's impossible to completely avoid bias! It's human nature.

Let's assume for a second that this person is moved to another manager's team. They have a "brilliant" idea, which their coworker, Catie, shuts down. Your partner comes home and starts ranting about the injustice of Catie's comments/actions. They ask you if you would be willing to casually bring it up to your fellow manager/team leader, and maybe swing opinion back in his/her direction. What do you do? The answer is: no matter what you do, you're screwed.

Here's another scenario: you guys have a fight. It's about something small, and annoying, but it escalates out of proportion. You know that it's gonna blow over in a day or so, but in the mean time, you have to go to work - together. You have to interact with your partner, even though an hour ago you wanted to throttle him/her. Are you mature enough that you're not going to let that seep through your professional demeanor? Is (s)he? No matter what you do, it's going to come across, and either make it uncomfortable for those around you, or worse, directly affect the quality of your work, and cost someone time/money to fix your mistakes.

4) Envy. Backtalk. Watch those friendly coworkers of yours turn into nasty little gossip machines.

You and him/her were both single until just now (I think this is a reasonable assumption). Maybe some other coworker also has crush on the apple of your eye. Maybe that person won't take it too well to see your romance developing right in front of them.

Or maybe human nature will simply assert itself in a simpler form: "(S)he really wants that promotion! insert mean laugh"

It's unpleasant to hear this, I know, but it doesn't make it any less likely.

Conclusion

If you honestly think that this person is worth it, speak to them. Gauge their reaction to "going public", which is the only good option if you're going to commit to one another. Then, with his/her blessing, go to your boss and explain the situation. Ask for one of you to be transferred to a different team. Hopefully the worst of what I've described above won't affect you. (even though I, personally, would recommend that one of you find a different job)

However, if you're physically attracted to this person but don't see yourself with them a few years down the line (not necessarily marriage, but at least a solid commitment), then why risk it? Not to say that cutting ties and potentially watching him/her start dating someone else would be pleasant, but decide what's most important in your life before you make a decision.

4

Although its very difficult to answer based on the particular circumstances (eg 'same religious university' - what kind of religion and what's their expectations towards marriage etc) the basic answer to this is to avoid any accusation of preferential treatment. That means moving this person off your team so they are managed by someone else. Or at least, have someone else deal with their HR management responsibilities if you cannot remove them from your technical or line management role.

Anything less will eventually give an excuse to gossip that Z got a raise/bonus/etc because of the relationship and not their work. No matter how well you try to be transparent, accusations of bias will crop up, usually from people who didn't get the same raise/bonus/etc.

Otherwise, consider what's more important to you - relationship with this person or your day job. (hint: nobody on their deathbed ever said they wished they'd spent more time in the office)

  • Pretty sure no one was happy away to throw away a job for a fling that turned out to last a few weeks either. – user42272 Nov 12 '15 at 0:52
  • @djechlin and how close are these two? Nobody can say based on the OPs question but that he's asking here suggests its more than a quick fling (that raises other issues for the aftermath but that's a different question) – gbjbaanb Nov 12 '15 at 8:41
  • That's kind of my point, we don't know which is why I find it strange you took a pretty clear stance in the form of your "hint." Side note, we don't know OP's gender and they preferred to conceal it. (Even if you might guess OP is male, it's still rude and a bit discriminatory if OP is female, for instance). – user42272 Nov 12 '15 at 13:59
  • @djechlin why would it be discriminatory if OP is female? Life is more important than work is all it means, that applies equally well to men and women (and I got that quote off a male colleague at work who was annoyed at his lack of work-life balance) – gbjbaanb Nov 12 '15 at 14:13
1

Your question is about mitigation, so I'll forego talking about what a snake pit such a relationship could be.

Mitigation #1 Change the work relationship so that you are no longer in a position of power over Z. We have many couples working in different groups and it works out fine. If you aren't willing to consider this, you should not pursue the relationship.

Mitigation #2 Don't hide the relationship. Even if it is not affecting work, sometimes the appearance of wrongdoing is worse than actual wrongdoing. It will most likely lead to drama within the company. If you can't manage that, you should not pursue the relationship.

Mitigation #3 Have a plan for when the relationship ends. Honestly I don't know what this might consist of, but you should consider carefully what will happen if one of you wants to pursue other romantic opportunities. If you don't want to plan for this, even though it might not happen, you shouldn't pursue the relationship.

Mitigation #4 Discuss with Z how you two will separate work and personal and whether it's even possible. Is it OK if you can't discuss everything you know? Can Z refrain from using the relationship to get you to change your mind about work related issues (even if it's not self-serving)? If you can't figure this out, you shouldn't pursue the relationship.

Even with mitigation, such a relationship is a minefield. Are you sure you want the added stress?

0

Someone in the comments said I didn't answer the question so I provide a more expansive answer. This answer is from my own experiences of dealing with and seeing others deal with this situation in the work places on multiple occasions.

Management will not look favourably on this relationship because it opens them up to the possibility of law suits. It will adversely effect your career at this company, they might not say anything formally but it will count against you.

You will play favourites, even if only slightly, because the person you are in a relationship with has leverage over you others do not have. People will accuse you of favouritism no matter what you do, either because they are looking for something to blame for their own short comings or they have an axe to grind against you or your partner.

If the relationship ends badly and you are a male manager having a relationship with a female subordinate, then you have left your career to her mercy. This is less of a problem with other types of relationship.

You cannot mitigate the risks of the relationship, you can only understand them and accept them or avoid them completely not having a relationship.

  • This is pure speculation. There is no indication from the OP as to their gender or that of their subordinate. – Jane S Nov 11 '15 at 23:45
  • @JaneS He said if you are a man. And it is a valid statement. Men get some good gender bias and some bad. – paparazzo Nov 11 '15 at 23:46
  • 1
    @JaneS There is 50 50 basis for that premise. And I think it is man asking the question. A lot of feminine tone but I still think it is a man. The "more likely" makes it a valid answer either way. – paparazzo Nov 11 '15 at 23:56
  • 1
    -1 for not answering the question. – user42272 Nov 12 '15 at 0:49
  • 2
    @Frisbee it's incredibly rude to perform that sort of psychologizing on someone explicitly seeking to keep the matter anonymous, and at the least not germane. Besides the male-female gender question you've also apparently dismissed gay relationships as a possibility. – user42272 Nov 12 '15 at 1:02

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.