'Love contracts' after #metoo

Intel Corp’s Chief Executive Brian Krzanich resigned last week after a probe found that a consensual relationship with an employee in his chain of command violated the company’s “non-fraternisation” policy. The head of the largest US chipmaker is the latest in a line of powerful men in business to lose their jobs or resign over relationships viewed as inappropriate, a phenomenon highlighted by the #MeToo movement. 

Companies usually have little say on office romance per se, but the problem starts when this happens between persons who are in direct reporting relationships. Also, most people have this mistaken notion that punitive action is taken only when sexual harassment charges are levelled. Workplace relationships have been the downfall of several top executives in recent years. In the past, Lockheed Martin’s Christopher Kubasik resigned shortly after being named as CEO due to a relationship with a subordinate employee. Best Buy’s CEO Brian Dunn met with a similar fate.

Some companies go far beyond a direct reporting relationship — a sign that an increasing number of boards have little tolerance for any missteps. Boeing, for example, had forced its chief executive to resign after an investigation uncovered that he had an affair with a female employee even though she did not work directly for the CEO and was several levels down in the company, and he did not show her preferential treatment.

And it’s not that action is taken only against male CEOs; it’s not even necessary that the partners have to work in the same company. A large bank in the US fired its top lawyer because she was involved in a romantic relationship with the CEO of a government-backed mortgage purchasing firm. The charge: Conflict of interest. What is interesting is that the latter firm took the opposite view on the ground that the individual did not get into any business dealings with the bank. So he was retained by the firm as the CEO.

Such cases, however, should not give an impression that office managements have become so prudish that romances at the workplace are a strict no-no at all levels. The zero tolerance approach is taken only for the top-level managers for fear of legal retaliation, damage to office morale and other problems. When a supervisor dates an employee, it is no longer just a private matter. Legal and other complications arise, triggering questions about fairness, favouritism and credibility and accountability. And the distraction can tear apart even the most cohesive group. There are all sorts of complications when a boss has a relationship with his/her subordinate. It can lead to a loss of respect and credibility and lower office morale — not to mention whiffs of favouritism.

There is hardly any public information about CEOs in Indian companies getting the boot for consensual relationships with colleagues, though many insist it is not that uncommon and such incidents are generally brushed under the carpet. (There has, however, been no dearth of sexual harassment cases in Indian companies.)

HR experts say Indian companies, thus, are fairly complacent about framing explicit guidelines on office romance, preferring less-formal oversight and friendly advice to keep any dating relationships totally out of the office. This can be costly.

They can take a leaf out of the books of overseas companies, many of which have elaborate dating policies. At Facebook and Google, for example, employees are reportedly allowed to ask a co-worker out only once. If they are turned down, they can’t ask again as that could constitute harassment. Many have moved on to an elaborate “love contract”, which is essentially a written agreement between two employees that spells out the voluntary nature of their romance. These covenants, formally called consensual relationship agreements, are signed by employees to confirm their relationship on record to HR. Their purpose is to mitigate risk by affirming that a romance is consensual — in theory, staving off harassment claims. 

Many say such contracts may not work well in India as they require employees to come forward and openly admit to the existence of a relationship in the first place. It’s unlikely that individuals would willingly sit before HR and sign a legal document affirming their romance. That is where spreading awareness comes in — no company wants to or should play the love police, but as the legal world gets more complicated, they have to look at protecting themselves from potential problems.

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