Why an affair with the boss is a bad career move

And men who date female superiors are judged more harshly

Amorous relationships in the workplace aren't something to just snigger about over by the coffee machine. They are also the study of academic research.

Why, you may ask? The answer, of course, is because we are human and humans have inbuilt biases and prejudices that, however hard we may try to suppress them, bubble up at strategic moments.

Moments such as deciding who to promote and who to select for training and development. If we can be alert to these prejudices – the theory goes – the more likely it is that we can prevent them from interfering with hard, business decisions.

Hierarchical workplace romance, or HWR, as it's known in the academic community, is when there is an imbalance in a romantic relationship at work such as a supervisor-subordinate match.

While there has been research on third-party perceptions and reactions to romantic workplace relationships, it hasn't dug deeper to look at how third parties can have an impact on the career development and progression of these star-crossed lovers.

Suzanne Chan-Serafin, a senior lecturer in the school of management at UNSW Business School, wanted to find out whether knowledge of an employee's workplace romance was used unfairly in the evaluation of their performance at work.

In her study, which for simplicity concentrated only on heterosexual relationships, Chan-Serafin found that if an employee was in a relationship with their boss or supervisor, their chances of being promoted or considered for internal training programs was reduced. But there was one unexpected outcome. 

'We could assume there is a generational shift in greater acceptance of relationships and dating at work’


An unusual twist

In the study, 145 people were asked to review an application from a senior associate in a law firm, and then advise on his/her suitability for promotion to partner.?

Study participants were shown a CV and given a brief description about the candidate. The only difference was gender (candidates had obviously male or female names). Embedded within the introduction to some candidates, was the information that they were in a romantic relationship with their boss or supervisor.

Study participants of both genders were significantly less likely to promote candidates who were dating their boss. But, in an unusual twist, they came down harder on the men who were dating female bosses than women who were dating male bosses.

Chan-Serafin thinks that men were judged more harshly than women because they were contravening social norms.

"Men who date higher status women are negatively evaluated because such types of relationships are rare and violate traditional gender roles. Men are expected to be higher in status," she suggests.

No one comes out of this research looking good. And it raises the question: what, if anything, can be done to counteract negative third-party attitudes to relationships that begin at work?

It may be that prevalence will soon make the question irrelevant. According to Adelaide University ethics professor Petrina Coventry, recent surveys show that almost 85% of 18 to 29-year-olds would engage in a romantic relationship with a co-worker (40% would date their supervisor), compared with a little more than 30% of 30 to 66-year-olds.

"We could assume there is a generational shift in greater acceptance of relationships and dating at work," says Coventry.

These romances are also more likely to end in marriage than relationships that start in other ways (such as being introduced by friends or meeting at a party), according to UK research from last year. The reasons being that the couples have more in common to begin with.

Soap-opera distraction

Happily ever after for some, though, doesn't alter the fact that for management, when it's the boss and a junior employee, it is never a private matter.

"Traditionally, the view around personal relationships and dating is that it needs to be well managed so that it does not cause conflict," says Coventry.

"But the issue often falls within an area called 'moral free space' leaving individual organisations to deem what is appropriate – and that may differ depending on the organisation type, geography and the societal norms and culture at play."

What management doesn't want is a soap-opera distraction that takes people away from what they are meant to be concentrating on, which can cause rifts in even the most tight-knit group.

Damage to the culture of an organisation can be pervasive, provoking questions about favouritism, credibility and accountability, fairness and transparency.

"Fairness is the concept at hand, and being able to determine if an employee is receiving positive or negative attention due to a personal connection," says Coventry. "If the consequence of a relationship rewards or penalises an individual over and above others, then conflict and complaints around unfairness emanate."

‘I think we’re pretty prudish when it comes to talking about cases where our personal relationship might impact on employment’


Disclosure of relationships

Transparency is the key – and something the Australian Fair Work Commission (FWC) has chosen to comment on, advising that employers should seriously consider disclosure policies to avoid conflict of interest.

It follows the FWC's recent decision in the case of M v Westpac Banking Corporation, to reject the unfair dismissal application of a Westpac manager who failed to disclose an office affair with his subordinate employee.

"I think some cases that have involved senior people have caused boards to realise that they need to be a bit more actively interested if they've got a senior person who has a reputation for playing around," said senior lawyer Kate Jenkins before she became Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner.

In her present role, Jenkins has backed the call for disclosure policies, noting that in the US, employers are way ahead in this regard.

"In the US, the workers would usually report it confidentially to an HR person, who will then consider: Are there other things that need to be in place so this doesn't affect the business?

"Australian employers should be more upfront about conflict-of-interest policies and disclosure of relationships at work. I think we're pretty prudish when it comes to talking about cases where our personal relationship might impact [on] employment," Jenkins told The Age.

In California, the Supreme Court has even ruled that workers can sue when a colleague who is sleeping with the boss is shown repeated preferential treatment.

Unions and lawyers called it a victory for "the unloved"; but management reaction there hasn't been quite so sanguine, as they now have to worry not only about who is sleeping with whom, but who is getting the plum assignments, the promotions and the biggest office – and which colleagues are getting steamed up over it.

Clear policies

Tim Greenall, Special Counsel at Madgwicks Lawyers in Australia, advises that disclosure should be a confidential conversation between an employee and HR manager, who should then determine if any changes need to be made to minimise the risk of relationship-related problems.

"Employees should also be prepared to show that the relationship will not influence their work or business," says Greenall.

Just having a disclosure policy will not guarantee that everyone abides by it, of course. Greenall says that the consequences of what happens if they don't disclose need to be laid out in a workplace relationship policy as well, stating disciplinary actions that may be taken when an employee fails to disclose, particularly where the relationship has the potential to create conflicts of interest.

In the US, some companies have clauses forbidding relationships between managers and their subordinates altogether – which may sound like trying to hold back a wall of water – but the reason is to protect themselves from sexual harassment lawsuits when relationships go sour.

These are extreme measures that are unlikely to be adopted in the more laid-back business environment of Australia.

However, says Coventry: "It is becoming more rare to find an organisation that does nothing. In the end, this is a tricky situation but one that seems best handled by clear policies around transparency and reporting relationships."


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