Leadership and Organizational Behavior
The modern day workplace environment is subjected to various forces and factors, which force change to occur within companies. For instance, the advent of technology creates more complex working environments, in which the staff members have to continually advance their professional skills. Then, the economic crisis and the corporatist model create more demanding working environments, where the employees spend longer hours. The desire for more financial gains and professional recognition also drive the staff members to spend more hours at the office.
In this setting, people come to spend most of their time at work, eliminating the clear separation between work and personal life. In fact, on multiple occasions, the personal life of the employee is intertwined with the professional setting, where they make friends or even commence romances. The office romances nevertheless have the potential to create complications in the workplace, and must as such be managed.
2. The case for consensual relationship agreements
Workplace romances can create a series of complications within the employing company, such as frictions between employees, tensions, litigations of sexual harassment and others, all of which decrease productivity and negatively impact the morale in the office. In order to avoid these risks, employers often turn to contracts which regulate the romances; these are officially known as consensual relationship agreements, and informally referred to as love contracts. Through these contracts, the employees declare that their relationship is a consensual one and state how they would proceed if the relationship were to end. Additionally, they take note of the sexual harassment policies within the firm, the norms of ethical conduct, and also the consequences that would be suffered if they break these rules of internal behavior (Tyler, 2008).
The primary benefit of consensual relationship agreements (CRA) is that they help to better address and prevent cases of sexual harassment; this is mostly obvious when the office romance is established between a manager and their subordinate. Most offices however implement policies through which they prohibit fraternization between employees in different hierarchies (subordination relationships).
When these relationships nevertheless exist, they have to be notified and management must also be made aware when the relationships end. It can happen for sexual harassment charges to be brought against the manager upon the termination of the relationship, and the signing of a CRS prevents such situations. Still, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that, out of all sexual harassment complaints forwarded, only 5 per cent had resulted from failed office romances (Minow and Lipinski, 2003).
Aside from managing sexual harassment accusations, the signing of consensual relationship agreements also allows the employer to preserve a sense of transparency and integrity, to protect the morale in the office and also to promote productivity, rather than stifle it.
“The “love contract” will require the parties to notify the employer when the romance has ended. This helps the employer to heighten its awareness of potential sexual harassment claims at the most sensitive time. From a practical perspective, it can also maintain employee morale. The employer is not seen as “the heavy,” but the employer’s emphasis on maintaining productivity [â€¦] retains some sense of managerial integrity” (Minow and Lipinski, 2003).
3. Counter argument to consensual relationship agreements
As it has been mentioned throughout the previous section, the primary benefit of using consensual relationship agreements is represented by the ability to protect the firm. By signing these agreements for instance, the employees allow the company to manage sexual harassment claims in a more insightful manner, as well as preserve a sense of transparency, integrity and productivity (Minow and Lipinski, 2003).
Still, in spite of these advantages, the employment of consensual relationship agreements within the workplace also generates a series of shortages. The first example in this sense is represented by the strain such an agreement could have upon the couple. For instance, the two employees could just be starting to date, when they would have to put a label on their fresh and still developing relationship. This could lead to personal difficulties, as well as pressure from the external environment, as their fellow colleagues would become interested in the new office romance. In other words, new strains are put on the fresh relationship, making it more difficult for it to thrive in the best of circumstances.
The second example is revealed by the impact of signing an agreement within the firm. Specifically, when the individuals within an office become aware of the existence of a relationship between two of their fellow colleagues, they might become personally interested in the development of the situation. This interest could result from simple curiosity or for personal feelings and convictions towards one of the parties involved in the relationship. In either case, the new interested manifested by the staffs decreases their attention towards the core operations, and therefore decreases the productivity of the staff members.
Both of the risks hereby identified can be addressed to some degree. In the case of the strains on the new relationship, it could be advisable for the new couple to only declare their romance and sign the CRA once their relationship is sufficiently stable and solid. This would nevertheless imply that, for a specific duration, the romance is kept secret, defying all advantages of the consensual relationship agreement. In terms of the second risk, that of decreased office productivity as a result of curiosity, this could be addressed by ensuring that the disclosure of the relationship and the signing of the CRA be kept confidential between the parties in the relationship and their direct supervisor; still, such an objective might be difficult to attain.
4. Ethics of using consensual relationship agreements
The employment of consensual relationship agreements within the modern day workplace is normally aimed to help the company protect itself against sexual harassment charges resulted from a failed relationship, which would imply litigations, financial costs and loses of organizational reputation. Still, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, only an estimated five per cent of such charges are resulted from failed office romances. From the ethical standpoint then, a question is being posed relative to the actual role of the consensual relationship agreement.
Ethical conduct would normally imply discretion in the relationship between two individuals, but office ethics have to protect the working environment against any negative impact resulted from socialization and fraternization of its staff members. This need is revealed in terms of both the protection of office productivity, as well as the protection of the employee morale and professionalism within the workplace.
From a business and practical standpoint then, the usage of consensual relationship agreement is a viable method, aimed to help protect and attain business objectives. From an ethical standpoint however, the usage of CRA can have damaging impacts upon the employees and their relationship, and should not, as such be used. This is supported by the ethical concern that the signing of consensual relationship agreements do not always focus on the best interest of all parties involved, but more so on the interests of the employer (Benhabib and Dallmayr, 1990).
5. Alternative to consensual relationship agreements
The consensual relationship agreements are developed and enforced as a compulsory organizational element, and by not respecting it, the employees will be subjected to the adherent consequences. In essence, the staff members in firms which implement CRA are forced to declare their relationship and strive to act in a professional manner, regardless of their personal involvements. Still, such decisions might infringe the right to personal life and private and can create other negative impacts upon the employer as well.
In order to mitigate such risks, the consensual relationship agreement should normally be eliminated from the workplace. They should be replaced with internal training and the creation of an organizational setting and culture which respects people and focuses on ethical behavior in both personal and professional life. The CRA should not, as such, be forced on the staff members, and these should be trusted to manage their own personal and professional lives in the best possible manner; the company should then create the adequate environment for professional and ethical behavior outside of signed contracts.
In some specific occasions nevertheless, consensual relationship agreements should be maintained, but these normally refer to situations in which the relationships occur between employees in subordinate positions. While assessing relationships between physicians and their trainees in Australia, Canada and the United States, Christopher James Ryan (1998) at the University of Sydney found that:
“There should be not be a general prohibition against such relationships, but a prohibition should apply in certain special circumstances. Such circumstances include occasions when the psychiatrist is currently supervising the trainee, when a particular psychiatrist has repeated sexual relationships with trainees and when a group of psychiatrist voluntarily pledge to abstain from such relationships” (Ryan, 1998).
With more and more changes impacting the business environment, the economic agents have to continually reshape their internal working places. They have to integrate higher levels of diversity, more challenging tasks or continually advancing technologies, but also longer working hours and a blending of the personal and professional life of employees, which sometimes leads to the emergence of office romances.
The relationships between the staff members within a firm are sometimes regulated with the aid of consensual relationship agreements, which seek to provide practical protection for the business, but are ethically questionable. The ultimate recommendation then is that of creating a setting in which office romances are possible and do not interfere with the professional responsibilities; the strict contracts should nevertheless only be implemented for specific situations.
Benhabib, S. Dallmayr, F.R. (1990). The communicative ethics controversy. MIT Press.
Minow, M. Lipinski, T.A., (2003). The library’s legal answer book. American Library Association.
Tyler, K. (2008). HR Magazine: Sign in the name of love. Society for Human Resource Management. http://www.shrm.org/Publications/hrmagazine/EditorialContent/Pages/2Tyler-Love%20Contracts.aspx accessed on January 17, 2013
Ryan, C.J. (1998). Sex, lies and training programs: the ethics of consensual relationships between psychiatrists and trainee psychiatrists. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 32
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