The Do’s & Don’ts of Workplace Relationships

ArticleLast Updated November 20134 min readWeb-Exclusive
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Cindy started her new job with high expectations. She thought she had joined a client-centered veterinary practice with great teamwork and a focus on relationships, but now has realized that she was wrong. The receptionist she thought was great is actually bossy, and the manager ignores Cindy’s pleas for help. In fact, the receptionist and the manager seem extra chummy, and Cindy wonders what is going on. The other day she surprised them as they looked over some papers; their heads were close together and his hand was on her arm.

At another practice, Brendan has different concerns. Mild flirtation with a new technician had turned into dating, but now she has drawn back and wants to end the relationship. Worse, when Brendan insisted on discussing it at work, she accused him of sexual harassment.  

Workplace relationships range from friendships to intimate connections, but they all affect the practice. The observers may feel unfairly treated and ignored by those in the relationship. The participants may find that getting into a relationship is easier than getting out.

Educate to prevent problems

It is tough to forbid people to form workplace relationships. As a leader, the best approach is educated prevention.

Should a practice have a policy governing relationships? According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “no fraternization” or “love contract” policies are created to reduce employer exposure to liability for sexual harassment claims.1 A fraternization policy may prohibit dating between supervisors and subordinates, or between any team members. A love contract requires that team members disclose relationships and sign an agreement that governs conduct in the workplace. However, such policies are difficult to create and enforce.

However, creating a team “code of conduct” to govern workplace behavior can help.2  The whole team should participate in creating the code, which should describe and define such behaviors as “common courtesy” and those that show professionalism and respect. A code of conduct does not focus on intimate relationships, but it provides a reference for behavior if a relationship impacts the workplace. Also, ensure a sexual harassment policy is in place.

Workplace processes and systems also help reduce relationship issues.3 Managers and owners can implement these ideas; team members can ask to help create and implement them if they don’t already exist.

  • Ensure the practice has clear processes for addressing complaints, including, if possible, more than one choice should the primary “go to” person have a relationship conflict.

  • Create and use job descriptions and task lists to provide structure.

  • Include adherence to the code of conduct as part of performance evaluations.

  • Give regular, written performance reviews based on job descriptions, measurable factors, and specific behaviors.

  • Do not allow people involved in a relationship to evaluate one another.

  • If the practice is large enough, assign those involved in a relationship to different teams.

What if it becomes necessary to have a difficult conversation about a workplace relationship? Focus on behaviors that are affecting the practice, such as describing the tasks or client services that are being negatively impacted, not the relationship.  

General Rules of Relationships

The entire practice team should know these general rules:

  • Team members all should make a strong effort to form friendships outside of work and avoid becoming overly dependent on other members for friendship. This is especially crucial for a team member who is new in town.

  • Team members should be especially cautious about relationships with any member who has a different status or plays a different role. Power differentials inherent in a practice team mean equal relationships are impossible, because one member likely has some influence over the other’s job. This can be a problem during performance evaluations or when disciplinary action is required.

  • Relationships between peers at equivalent levels are also risky. Others may feel left out or think that too much chatting means tasks don’t get finished. Resentment can build even when those in the relationship work hard to avoid creating a problem. Remember that others’ perceptions are their own realities!

  • If team members want to meet after work or attend social events together, everyone should be invited, not just “some friends,” and any socializing should be collegial but professional.

Once the practice policies are in place, stick to them. Ensure that everyone is evaluated with the same process, focusing on clear tasks and responsibilities. This way, every member of the team knows how his or her performance is measured and that the leadership has fair expectations of all team members.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Veterinary Team Brief.