The realities of modern work lives—greater diversity, lengthening work hours, permeation of work environment into social life, and increasingly liberal social mores—mean that workplace relationships cannot be wished away. Indian corporates generally frown upon such relationships. Some have explicit norms of disclosure and appropriate safeguards, but most prefer to ban close relationships or take a head-in-the-sand approach.
Rather than viewing workplace relationships as irrational phenomena, organizations must help their personnel develop a nuanced and constructive response to workplace relationships. Of course, instances of sexual harassment and relationships that violate personal boundaries must be dealt with severely; our focus here is on relationships that are based on friendships, attraction and intimacy.
Attraction, sexuality and romance are often treated synonymously. Workplace romance invariably gets associated with sexuality. However, interpersonal attraction is not the same as a romantic relationship and it does not necessarily have sexual connotations. Attraction can foster close friendships. Attraction is about liking or being drawn towards someone due to some alluring intellectual or emotional quality or affinity. It can be fostered by many factors, ranging from mere continuous exposure to similar attitudes and traits to physical attractiveness.
While attraction can catalyze relationships, the motivating factor in many cases could also be the need to associate with power centres. L.M. Morgan and M.J. Davidson in their 2008 article Sexual dynamics in mentoring relationships: A critical review published in the British Journal of Management noted that more than 70% of romances involved one partner in a higher position. Relationships involving imbalance of power open up avenues for exploitation.
For example, a partner with more authority can force a subordinate into tasks beyond what the job description demands. Conversely, the subordinate can pressurize the boss into granting undue benefits and opportunities. The organization-wide impact on employee morale and effectiveness can be damaging when the relationship is perceived to be utilitarian in nature and lacking in authenticity. The normal course of business gets impacted and even decisions taken in the best interests of the organization are tinged with suspicion and jealousy.
There are other less obvious damaging consequences. Interpersonal relationships carry the potential of gender role spillover into contexts that might not be relevant.
For example, one partner might exhibit excessive compliance with the work role and forfeit opportunities to demonstrate skills and competence, thus losing the respect of colleagues. On the other hand, the dominant partner might behave like a charismatic predator or a benevolent giver even in routine engagements, thereby missing out on building meaningful professional relationships based on reciprocity, equality and competence. The results of such behaviour might not be immediately visible, but both careers suffer in the long run and opportunities for professional growth become limited.
The stigma associated with workplace relationships could also lead to other perverse outcomes. For instance, employees may become too conscious and may desist from all forms of heterosexual friendships for fear of gossip and rumour. This inhibits the interaction of individuals as colleagues, creating a "glass partition" between genders.
Alternatively, friendships at the workplace, handled with maturity and awareness, can provide social support which can be a buffer against stress. Such friendships can develop into valuable partnerships and mentoring relationships, while also fostering an open and collaborative organizational culture. But usually, employees are not able to realize these positive outcomes, as attraction at workplace quickly leads to a romantic relationship, often in an attempt to compensate for lack of intimacy, belonging and fulfilment in their personal lives.
The key to sustaining meaningful and constructive relationships at work is to be keenly aware of the various facets of such relationships. It is important for the individuals involved to understand the primary motivations and the process of attraction which led to the relationship in the first place. They need to insulate their work roles from the relationship, while simultaneously benefiting from its positives: feelings of affiliation, mutual understanding, bonding and empathy. They should also learn to manage the reactions of colleagues and the larger organization.
More crucially, they should weigh the perceived long-term benefits and costs of the relationship on their careers, recognizing that the impact of the relationship might linger in the workplace way beyond the duration of the relationship.
Organizations must have strict policies and guidelines when it comes to dealing with cases of sexual harassment. At the same time, organizations need to take a constructive approach to close relationships at work instead of outright avoidance of issues related to intimacy and attraction. Managers need to be helped to develop a more nuanced understanding of how individuals experience close interpersonal situations and are affected by them.
Often, a manager's own moral code could influence the reaction to situations which involve close friendships.
Understanding the organization's perspective is also important. Managers who can appreciate the complexities of intimacy at work can foster a secure environment, with adequate guidelines and boundaries, where employees can develop closer friendships and benefit from team creativity and positive synergy.
Finally, partners who can clearly demarcate their organizational roles from their personal relationships, and can handle organizational trust issues with maturity and openness, are less likely to suffer from the dysfunctional aspects of workplace attraction and intimacy.