With McDonald's recently ousting its CEO over having a consensual relationship with an employee, how prudent is it to navigate a workplace romance?
In 2015 when Steve Easterbrook became CEO of McDonald's, he perhaps didn't imagine he would be fired in four years even though the company's share price more than doubled during his tenure. In fact, the British business executive has been credited with saving a sinking ship and the sudden announcement of his ousting sent the American fast-food chain's stock tumbling to seven-month lows. The reason for his exit was equally shocking — Easterbrook admitted to being in a consensual relationship with an employee, which was against company policy.
Steve Easterbrook Pic/ Getty Images
A workplace romance with a happy ending isn't unheard of; be it in TV series like The Office's Pam and Jim, Bill and Melinda Gates or to take it to new extremes, Steven Shainberg's Secretary (2002). Closer home, the love story of architects Neha Parulekar and Krishna Iyer is also one that escalated smoothly at the workplace. In 2013, 25-year-old Parulekar joined as an intern at a leading architectural firm in Mumbai where Iyer was already a senior associate. Although they weren't directly reporting to each other, love blossomed every afternoon, where owing to a small workforce, the company had a tradition of having lunch together. "I was hesitant at first because it could cost me my job. What if he wouldn't reciprocate my feelings? Would my boss be okay with this?" Parulekar shares. In a year's time their relationship grew serious and little did she realise that her boss would get the hint, too. "She was the most encouraging person and even got us working on projects together. That way, our schedules synced and we always had time for each other. When we decided to get married in 2015, our colleagues were happy to receive the news," she recalls. Although Parulekar parted on a happy note with the firm for personal reasons, Iyer remains an employee.
After the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement took shape, a 2018 survey by US-based executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, conducted among 150 HR executives nationwide, found that 78 per cent of companies do not allow dating between a manager and a report, while 51 per cent maintained that their companies had a formal, written policy on romantic relationships that is reviewed with all employees.
Krishna Iyer and Neha Parulekar
Michelle Suradkar, ex-Group Chief Human Resources Officer, MullenLowe Lintas Group, informs that policies in India may not specifically state terms like "dating" but rather relationships (romantic and familial) could fall under the purview of Related Parties and Conflict of Interest. "If two employees got into a relation we would make sure there was no direct reporting — a transfer would be done. In a smaller organisation, you pretty much know everyone. So, you approach them and have a friendly chat. I don't believe in a formal intervention. People also take transfers well considering their careers," she shares.
But company policies might not be the only challenge. City-based analyst Riya Narayan (name changed on request) works at a leading global financial services firm and is in a relationship with a colleague who works in the same department as her. Her organisation has a conflict of interest policy where all personal relationships need to be revealed to HR. "But since I'm vying for a promotion in the upcoming cycle, we've chosen to not tell anyone apart from a few trusted colleagues. I know my firm would be accepting as long as we both are not in the same, wider department. Also people in my department love to gossip so we'll end up being fodder for coffee and smoke breaks for several weeks which we both don't want," she adds.
As Suradkar sums up the scenario, it is unrealistic to not expect people to not fall in love at work. "You clock in so many hours at the office, where is your social life beyond work?" she asks. And Parulekar echoes the sentiment. "If we say love is love, this is too small a concern."
Large-sized companies have a list of dos and don'ts that employees should refer to before joining. Where policies are contractual, an employee is bound by contract and has to abide by those policies if he/she voluntarily agrees to it. One should find out about the company's culture before becoming a part of it.
Sexual harassment is a different domain and cannot be tolerated at the workplace. To curb that menace, guidelines have been laid down from time to time and most notably in the case of Vishakha and others v State of Rajasthan [The 1997 Indian Supreme Court case dealt with sexual harassment at the workplace]. Companies ought to have stringent rules for that. Harassment and consent are two different things. Consent has to be voluntary and unambiguous for it to qualify as consent. Unless clearly established, one cannot get away with harassment in the name of consent. - Prerak Choudhary, advocate
Employees who share a direct reporting relationship need to exercise caution because if cases tend to sexual harassment in the future, the POSH Act is usually in favour of the sub-ordinate due to the power structure. For partners who wish to pursue such a relationship in the long term, one of them would have to quit.
The biggest challenge arises when you break up because it becomes difficult to work alongside your ex. In that case, I've seen that people leave the organisation. You could ask for transfers but the company may not always be in a position to give it to you. - Saraswathi Char,clinical psychologist
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