How do you, as a leader, set appropriate boundaries in your work relationships? How do you strike the balance between establishing trust-based, caring relationships with your people, and maintaining professional distance?
Call me overly-cautious, but I’ve come to the view over the years that leaders simply should not have romantic relationships in the workplace.
I know this view’s going to be a little controversial. Some of you are currently in workplace relationships. And many of you have had office romances in the past.
And, to be clear, my view is in no way moralistic or judgmental. It’s simply the conclusion I’ve arrived at after seeing the damage that can be done to people’s careers as a result of workplace romances.
When I was younger, I didn’t fully understand the ramifications, but over the last 25+ years I’ve become increasingly convinced that the risks of romantic relationships at work simply outweigh the benefits.
I was lucky to learn this by observing others, rather than stepping on the landmines myself. There are lots of cautionary tales out there, and every week brings a new lawsuit, or high-profile executive sacking.
The social pendulum has really swung in the last 3-5 years. Organizations are increasingly seeking to impose themselves in the personal decisions of their people. As a leader, you need to be hyper-vigilant about how these shifting dynamics can potentially affect your career.
It’s always going to be tempting to have a romantic relationship, because you spend so much time in such close proximity to your team, your peers, and your boss. The implications though, of having a romantic relationship in your workplace are many.
First of all, there’s often a power imbalance. If you date someone at a more junior level than yourself, regardless of whether they report to you or not, it raises questions.
Most important, is the question of consent. Can the more junior person be said to consent freely without being influenced by the power dynamics? It can all seem completely consensual in the beginning, but if things sour later on, this is a question that will almost certainly arise.
And, even if the relationship remains loving and blissful, when other people in the company become aware of it, your credibility will be eroded. Every decision you make will be scrutinized, as people automatically assume that favoritism will be rampant in any area that has the slightest bearing on your partner.
Once it’s known around the office—and this is generally way before you think it’s known—you’ll be viewed differently based on these assumptions, even if you bend over backwards to be fair and impartial.
Remember that as a leader you set the tone, the pace and the standard for your people. Workplace relationships make that so much more difficult. It’s hard enough to build a high-performance, constructive culture without doing dumb sh!t.