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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Myth of the Consensual Workplace Romance

I'm approaching 30 years working in private sector workplaces and I have learned a few things: loyalty is rewarded if you work for good people, getting behind can be cured by staying later, and a workplace romance is never a good idea.

The reason is that the presence of position power and romantic attachment are toxic.

This combination is toxic to relationships and to the workplace in several ways.

1. You can't hide a romance...don't even try. Once an individual with position power is perceived to show favor to someone on staff then favoritism is introduced, real or perceived, into the workplace.

2. Judgement gets clouded. The person with postion power may rationalize that they're being fair to everyone, but that's not always the case. Its worse when they lie to themselves that nobody knows.

3. The staff starts seeing ghosts. Even when no favoritism or romantic activity is going on, the perception that it is becomes the easy-out, blame-all for everything that goes wrong.

4. You can never tell when "yes" means "I dare not say no". Even if it starts as "yes", at some point one party tires of the relationship, doesn't feel that they can back out, and continues on somewhat or even totally against their will. At that point it becomes Sexual Harassment.

I have a little personal experience with this. My wife and I met at work over 30 years ago. Our relationship was complicated by our constant disagreements at work and about work. She left that job, I went back to college, and the rest is history. That we can sleep together but can't work together is not insignificant. Power sharing in a relationship is negotiated and voluntary. Power at work is structured and granted to individuals by more senior individuals through corporate governance. It is coercive by its nature and not negotiated. When coercive power is introduced into a romantic situation and supplants negotiated power a "yes" can never be certain.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Small Town Professionals

I grew up in a small town. Actually, that's not true; I grew up about 10 miles outside a really small town in a community of about 500 people called Little Muddy, Kentucky. Next closest place was Morgantown, population 1,200, where my parents had their business. My wife and I raised our family is the next biggest place, Russellville, about 20 miles away with a population of 8,000. I am small town by birth and professional by choice. That's an important choice.

We're a medium-sized company of 500 people. There's another way to look at that; we're a really small town of 500 people. When you spend more time at work than at home you build community with the people at work. Departments are like streets; some neighborhoods are furnished better than others. Everybody is into everybody else's business.

Now I don't mean that in a bad way. You can't build community, connectedness and teamwork on the one hand and anonymity on the other. People can't just come in, not socialize, go their own way at the end of the the day and build strong teams.

But it is at the intersection of teamwork and privacy that we all need to make the choice to think like and act like professionals. People are people, and when you introduce all the messy problems that individual human beings have and mix them all into one workplace you're going to have talk. Those are occasions where either the best or the worst human instincts can show up in the workplace. To keep this a great place to work I propose a simple recipe:

One tsp of "behave yourself" + a pinch of "mind your own business" + drop of "focus on your work" keeps a company our size a professional workplace and not some place from which you have to leave to grow up. If you keep your personal business out of this business then it becomes none of anyone else's business. That is as it should be.