Workplace

Your employees are dating, but it's gotten ugly. Is this your problem?

The answer often depends on whether company leaders’ choices are based on workplace values or on legal obligations.

A brown wooden gavel

What is a company's responsibility in a romantic work relationship gone wrong?

Photo: Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unsplash

For the last 15 years, Jayna Whitt has served as an attorney for Apple’s bulwark intellectual property team. After about a decade at the company, two children and a collapsing marriage, Whitt began a private romantic relationship with another Apple executive. They cooked meals together, took Whitt’s children on vacation together and kept their partnership a secret from their managers.

Eventually, the relationship soured. In an essay published last month, Whitt alleged escalating cycles of physical and emotional abuse that she said made her so afraid of her partner that she moved apartments, changed locks and bought herself a new phone and computer.

In the spring of 2021, Whitt reported her fears of her partner — and co-worker — to Apple, hoping the company might find some way to help. First, Whitt said that Apple told her to contact the police if she was afraid for her immediate personal safety. Then, when the investigation finally ended, Whitt found herself with a personal reprimand in her file: Apple concluded that she had allowed a personal relationship to interfere with her work, and her behavior during the investigation violated Apple’s code of conduct. Whitt told Protocol that Apple placed her on leave at the end of April and is investigating whether her behavior ever violated its workplace policies. Apple declined to comment for this story.

While most intimate partner relationships at work don’t end with allegations of abuse, the broad outline of Whitt’s story mirrors that of others: A relationship between co-workers moves outside of the office, crossing professional boundaries, and then turns rotten. Perhaps one or both of the people involved decide to ask their company for help; maybe they want their former friend or former partner moved off their team, or they feel that the company should punish the person they know to be in the wrong. And even if the relationship doesn’t devolve, sometimes it seeps into the workplace, affecting how people treat each other, shifting power dynamics between managers and their subordinates, or creating gossip that distracts from work.

With policies generally ambiguous about professional boundaries outside of work, and actual offices now more of a concept than a physical space, a company’s responsibility in these situations depends mostly on whose opinion you ask — and almost everyone agrees the solutions are not as straightforward as they seem.

'The practices are mixed'

Some academic experts told Protocol that companies should make decisions based on whether their employees feel like they have a safe work environment; others said that companies are so discreet about these policies that it is not possible to know if a standard exists. Several chief people officers and HR experts declined to comment because they weren’t comfortable speaking about how they handle interpersonal relationships on the record. And lawyers said that the boundary is very simple: If it’s not happening at work and it’s not illegal, it’s not really the company’s problem, and it’s certainly not the company’s legal responsibility.

“I don’t think we know in any systematic way what companies are doing there,” said Peter Cappelli, the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school.

The ambiguity of these types of interpersonal situations and conflicts has made the outcome usually depend on a company’s experience and whether its leaders’ choices are based more on workplace values or on legal obligations. “The practices are mixed,” said Christine Porath, a management professor at Georgetown University who works with companies like Google to help them create workplaces where people treat each other with civility and respect. “Generally if you care about your people, you care about their well-being. And understanding where they are coming from and getting a better sense of what happened and getting involved to protect them, if needed, is a useful approach, I think rationally.”

One cybersecurity director — kept anonymous to protect her identity from co-workers who don’t know the details of her personal relationships — described to Protocol how she helped facilitate the hire of a close friend at her company. She and that friend eventually became roommates, and then they began dating. Though they both eventually left the company where they first began their romantic relationship, she was terrified that people would discover what they had done before they departed (even though they were not violating company rules.)

“It was extremely nerve-wracking and mentally very difficult for me as a leader to start dating someone who, despite having age parity with me, was further down the ladder than I was. Very, very stressful, and it took years for me to feel like I hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said.

Co-workers becoming more than just friends is something every company should expect. And employees bringing friends and family into the workplace isn’t just normal: It’s a practice that many people actively opt for because work takes up so much personal time and energy. “If you work at great places, you want your family and friends to join that cause with you, and that’s awesome,” Anita Grantham, head of HR at SaaS company BambooHR, told Protocol.

There are a few basic, widely accepted rules when family and people in public interpersonal relationships work together: They should never be on the same team, they should ideally have separate HR contacts and people working in the C-suite should never have romantic partners or family members at their company. “As an executive, I would never have a family member there,” Grantham said.

Yet those rules don’t account for situations like Whitt’s or the cybersecurity director’s. Grantham has found that in her experience, every situation has to be approached with caution and careful attention to the particularities of each individual, because each issue will be different from the last.

“We had a leader having a perceived affair with a subordinate, and everyone was talking about it: ‘They are spending time together, they were alone in the conference room, they were spotted at a restaurant bar on the property.’ And there was all this mischief being created” that led to workplace gossip, she said. Grantham addressed this situation by informing them both that their romantic relationship had to move outside of the workplace. While their relationship did not violate company rules or ethics, it was interfering with the workplace environment and the company’s values of workplace harmony, and that’s where Grantham believed she had a role to play.

“I don't honestly care what you choose to do, but whatever you are doing is disrupting our harmony inside our workplace,” she said that she told them. “Raise your level of awareness to that. If you choose to have your drinks after work, could you take it off site?”

Grantham pulled that particular example from the 1990s. In 2022, “offsite” has a far more vague definition as remote work has become so entrenched in corporate culture.

“It’s hard to define the boundaries these days of work and non-work given, for example, online behavior,” Porath said.

Whitt agreed. “The whole work-from-home thing could have a very positive impact for women, but not if the company is not going to support the ramifications of that,” she said. When work moves outside of the formal office space, opportunities for people to mistreat each other and take advantage of the fact that the company can’t observe them expand — and Whitt believes that companies need to account for that in their policies and expand the range of resources available to their workers.

Grantham’s solution? Take advantage of the fact that companies have more information about their employees’ behavior than most people might assume. If an employee reports that someone else is using workplace tools to harass them or using company time or tools for their personal relationships, Grantham usually has access to data about when workers are online, what tools they’re using and even what they’re saying. “I hate using the term investigation,” she said. “[But] employees are generally naive about the level of intake we have. I can go to IT and pull down all of that information. If you go down the IT rabbit hole, it gets easy to see if someone is really working, or are they leveraging work tools for personal use.”

'Be ready to have one person disagree with you'

The employees on the other end of investigations like these don’t usually get insight into that investigatory process, often because of company privacy policies. What might seem rational to a company leader or HR representative can feel callous to the people on the other end; an opaque process that seems logical to employees when a company is investigating a scenario like a romantic relationship with a subordinate would infuriate those same workers when it seems clear that harassment or abuse are on the line.

Whitt told Protocol that the people who conducted the investigation into her allegations didn’t know her on a personal or professional level, and she believed that detachment affected the way the company treated her and how it interpreted her claims. “If it was up to my managers at various points, I don’t think they would have made the same decisions,” Whitt said.

At big companies like Apple, it's standard practice for managers and employees not to know the people on the HR and ER teams doing the investigating. At smaller companies with a one or two-person HR and legal team, this can be a very different experience.

Grantham and the other HR leaders interviewed for this piece described harassment and illegal behavior as hard lines or “no-fly zones” that would lead to workers being fired or asked to leave. But at the same time, they said those hard lines are actually difficult to find during the course of an investigation. “I’ve been under fire in both situations for not being firm enough; the person in the HR seat can never win. Be ready to have one person disagree with you,” Grantham said. “You want the safe work environment, you want to trust what people are saying, but there’s no truth. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle.”

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