Is it Fair to Forbid Love at Workplaces?

From the boy next door to the man in the cubicle – love strikes at will.

Despite all our differences, we don’t have much control when it comes to matters of the heart. When two people meet, sometimes sparks fly.

So what if it happens in the dull environs of an office space or a business meeting?

Former CEO of McDonalds Steve Easterbrook is the latest high-profile casualty of an office affair.

Recently, the company fired him for his ‘poor judgement’ and for ‘breaking company policy by engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee’. There have been others, big and small, before him and we know he won’t be the last because after all, it is difficult to say no to the love of your life, just because the HR manual forbids it.

It need not even be the love of your life, it can be a casual thing, an emotional affair, a one night stand…whatever. The point is – is your bedroom your employers business? (no pun intended).

The chances of meeting someone special at work are pretty high, given that we spend most of our waking hours with colleagues instead of family and friends. As Indians, in any case we put in the longest hours vis a vis our global peers. For cities, that number is close to 53-54 hours per week (National Sample Sample Survey Office). This means, we spend thousands of hours per year in close proximity to people we like at the workplace.

Sure, keeping your professional and private lives separate is a good advice, but it is also difficult to follow.

Which is perhaps why international studies indicate that over 70% of people have been intimate with a co-worker at some point in their careers. Several psychologists have also talked about the factors that foster workplace intimacy.

Colleagues can bond over variety of reasons: partnering for common goals, working passionately as a team and the sheer time spent together. All of these can be a trigger for love.

Also read: We Need to Talk About Toxic Work Environments

However, what should be a simple ‘boy meets girl’ kind of story, gets complicated when a third party gets involved – especially for a good reason.

Several organisations are framing elaborate policies to discourage such liaisons and minimise corporate risk. They are wary, most importantly, about the possibility of the abuse of power. The issue has come to the forefront particularly after the #MeToo movement. More and more women are calling out unwarranted sexual advances and their unpleasant experiences.

Asking someone for a coffee after work hours can now be dicey as people in powerful positions, very often, fail to recognise the coercive nature of their propositions. A simple request can feel like a directive if it comes from the boss. It does make us question if consent is truly an option, when the power imbalance is too great to overcome.

The implications of a romance between co-workers is not limited to just the two of them. It can demoralise the team because of a perception of bias, particularly when one is in the position to review pay or make promotion decisions.

From a business point of view, there can be a conflict of interest which can create a hostile environment and unleash unproductive gossip.

And what if the couple breaks up? No one would want to see their ex at the office cafeteria everyday, right? And doing so might have its own after-effects.

Overall, the threat of expensive lawsuits, potential damage to brand and reputation, the loss of productivity and business opportunities are, hence, making companies cautious.

However, banning relationships or firing people is not the answer.

Human passions will, at some point, collide with the company’s policy. Organisations must begin to acknowledge the possibility and the existence of such relationships. There are enough successful examples – Deepika-Ranveer, Melinda-Bill Gates, Michelle-Barack Obama, and so many others from the startup, music and art world.

Some companies are trying to find a middle ground between protecting their interests and respecting human rights. But the solutions are far from perfect. Modern tech companies like Facebook, Google and AirBnB have a unique dating policy – you have just one chance to ask a colleague out. If the answer is no, that’s it, it means never again. Others just forbid it, some have restrictive clauses about departments and reporting structure, and then there are companies that demand full disclosure, much like our parents.

The tussle between the rulebook and human emotions continues.

At the end of the day, it is largely upto the individuals concerned to make a choice. And in these fractured times, they must choose wisely.

For when it comes to an office romance – it continues to be a love triangle between two starry-eyed people and their disapproving boss.

Ekta Kumar is a Chartered Accountant and an MBA from IIM Calcutta who writes on politics, human rights and social trends. She can be reached on Instagram @ekta_kr and on Facebook at Ekta Kumar.

Featured image credit: mnm_all/Unsplash