14 Feb 2020

Love, But No Lies, in the Workplace

Regina Herzlinger

by Regina Herzlinger

Love in the workplace is inevitable but it does not always turn out well.

When Jacob first laid eyes on Rachel back at the family farm, bang, it was love. But he had to put in 14 years of thankless labor for his shifty father-in-law before he could marry her. And the kids? Well, Joseph and his brothers did not exactly have a mutually constructive relationship. And when Caesar and Anthony fell in love with Cleopatra while they plotted to conquer worlds, all three died an ugly death. As for their kids, don’t ask!

Is it surprising that when two people work at the same type of job, see a lot of each other, start to admire each other, then like each other, that they may well fall in love?

So the strings of firings of big corporate CEOs who had “inappropriate relationships,” such as those of McDonald’s, Priceline Group, Lockheed Martin, Best Buy, and countless others, are not about relationships that were “inappropriate.” Love happens.

The relationships were inappropriate only because they took place in the workplace. Typically, the flames of this early love burn red hot. Judgment is compromised because these red-hot flames sear the business side of the brain. The loved one can do no wrong.

Plus, although the affairs are usually undisclosed, they are typically well known within the organization. Innocent bystanders become collateral damage. The lack of disclosure corrodes institutional trust from within. Thus, when McDonald’s CEO was fired, a McDonald's worker said there had been dozens of other complaints about the culture. "It's clear McDonald's culture is rotten from top to bottom,” she noted.

Perhaps the height of lack of disclosure was reached by a nonprofit CEO who boasted of his transparency in a widely-circulated blog, while conducting a close relationship with a woman employee, decades his junior, whom he met as a mentor to undergraduate students. She became a strategic planner at one of the organization’s branches, and eventually its chief of staff. Both jobs disappeared after her departure. Meanwhile, the CEO pleaded that the staff give up raises and benefits so the hospital would not be forced to lay off its lowest-paid workers.

In response, the State’s Attorney General (AG), charged with overseeing charities, criticized board members and senior management—some of whom knew about the relationship for years and had warned the CEO about its inappropriateness—by noting that, if the entire board been informed and taken definitive action when those concerns were first expressed, "much, if not all, of the damage would have been averted. This relationship was not a secret," the AG said. "It was widely known. We are saying [the board] should have acted on it (as soon as it knew)." Key employees worried about the scarring effect on the organization’s reputation and fund-raising ability.

So, if you non-CEOs are in love with a coworker, good for you!

Let everyone know about it. Your work with the firm may well survive. Nobody wants to lose valuable employees, although the two of you likely will not be able to continue to work together.

If you are a CEO in love with a colleague, however, the only place you should go is out the door.

But, hey, count yourself lucky: you are in love, after all. And by disclosing your romance early, you have spared many innocent people a great deal of heartache.

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