Inevitably, it's a topic that continues to rear its ugly head at what seems to be regular intervals. Over and over we hear about how romantic relationships in the workplace go south and create all kinds of drama for the individuals involved, the public and the companies themselves. Most recently, we had Mark Hurd, the ousted HP CEO suspected of having an affair with a contractor and lying about it. There is some debate over how accurate an accusation this is, but nonetheless his personal involvement with Jodie Fisher has caused a media firestorm and serious PR implications for the company. This case however, is bifurcated. There are two problems here. One is the alleged romance between Mark and Jodie and the other is how he allocated expenses to either fund the relationship or conceal its existence - at least that's what "the reports" say.
On the policy side, the romance issue is simple. There are several things that a company needs to have in place in order to manage these situations effectively. I assume that HP did have something resembling the outline below, although one never knows. Sometimes it's the most obvious, expected, protective measures that are surprisingly left out of corporate policy.
- Design and publish a policy about personal, office romance in your workplace. It's important to craft one that makes sense for the specific organization, its business and employees.
- Communicate clearly, abundantly and regularly about how the policy will be managed and enforced. Policies are only as important as businesses make them. So to bury them in a handbook somewhere and cross your fingers that you'll never need them, doesn't help much after the fact, when you learn that you actually did.
- Support the policy by building infrastructure around it. However you choose to define dating and relationships in your organization, systems and structures will need to be in place that either ensure these situations are out in the open and easy to talk about, or to ensure that they do not occur. That may require sanctions, rewards or systems to handle different scenarios if they should arise.
- Enforce the policy and if not, pay the consequences if it backfires. There's not much more you can do.
It's unclear where HP comes down on romantic relationships policy. And, since a complaint of sexual harassment was levied against the CEO, and sexual harassment laws are regulated federally, it's hard to know whether he violated company policy or an employment agreement by becoming involved with a contractor in the first place. If he did, and the company had a policy prohibiting it, he could have been fired on the spot and this whole mess could have been avoided.
So, it's become muddled as to whether he was originally in hot water because of a company policy breach or because it escalated into a formal complaint of sexual harassment, which therefore prompted new charges of expense improprieties. So what's what here? Admittedly, it is a bit of a mess for HP to untangle and the board is not known for its grace in handling executive matters. So we shall see.
Meanwhile, the best romantic relationship policy I ever came across was one that allowed employees to date (or do whatever) as long as their personal involvement was disclosed to the organization in some way, shape or form. This meant that there was an explicit expectation on both the people in the relationship and anyone who knew about it to make the involvement known to the company. To support transparency the company created contact channels internally and externally so that employees had someone to go to if they felt unsafe using traditional reporting lines. With that, it was also made crystal clear that non-disclosure on the part of the lovebirds or anyone else "in the know" was grounds for termination. After all, the point was that there was no reason to hide it or lie because in the company's mind, there was nothing wrong with finding love at work and pursuing a relationship as a result. In fact, it was considered natural due to the amount of time that people spend at work. But this company wasn't stupid either. It was well aware of the emotional component that comes with romance as well as the dark side of human nature. So in order to protect the business, the company simply reassigned one of the individuals to a different department so as to mitigate any potential negative impact in the event that the romance soured. Oh well, all is fair in love and work.