Workplace Relationships, Policy vs Culture?

As a woman moving into the second half of my life I know I have fixed beliefs. In a changing world I love challenging those fixed beliefs. I’ve been obsessed with looking at things I take for granted as truth and turning them on their heads. I do this as a personal growth exercise, to find ways to transform something. Sounds a little weird I know. I’ll give you some examples of how that looks in real life.

I recently had an opportunity to visit the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC. I went in with all my baggage and perceptions and biases. I took an inventory of those things as I entered the building and asked myself to put aside everything I believed and enter with a curiosity and intention to learn something new. Not like a new fact but rather a new perspective. In doing so, I transformed something in my thinking about race. I left with something else in my bag of tools I use to understand the world around me.

I had such an experience yesterday in a conversation at work. I was explaining to a co-worker why I felt that workplace relationships were problematic, particularly ones between supervisors and subordinates. As HR in this company, I see it as my responsibility to prevent these kinds of power dynamics. Having been involved in such a relationship early in my career and being subjected to a toxic dynamic, my go-to attitude is to throw all such relationships into that pot. Even if the relationships themselves aren’t toxic, the precedent it sets for others is toxic. I stood strongly for this.

My concern has been with what could happen if hierarchical workplace relationships are allowed to exist. I think like an owner and consider liability too. From all angles to me these types of relationships look like a bad idea. I don’t mean just for the people involved in the relationship (the power dynamic leaving one person feeling trapped) but for the team around them. It could be seen as a conflict of interest: favored promotions, task assignments, raises and reviews. Others could feel uncomfortable and unable to speak openly. They might not feel able to address concerns to their supervisor about work of the partner. These, by the way, seemed so obvious to me that it never occurred to me that my younger co-worker might not understand this.

When I explained to her what I had experienced and how other kitchens have been run, she said I was imposing my fear onto her and her relationship. I began to examine what my lived experience was imposing on her. In my co-worker’s view, I was imposing the fear from my past onto how I saw workplace relationships. I was imposing my lived experience, in the form of a policy, into the way it should look in the future.

It made sense to me in my orderly way of thinking: if something can be problematic behavior, avoid it at all costs. Since I had evidence that something bad could happen, I was insistent that no hierarchical relationship should be acceptable in the workplace.

I was puzzled about why, in the age of #MeToo, she didn’t see this as a problem. This didn’t occur to her because the culture at this workplace didn’t have it show up as a problem until it was. Past relationships that had been tolerated were not hierarchical. She wasn’t aware as a matter of culture, that this behavior could be a problem. When we see backlash from co-workers in response to the relationship, the culture can’t sustain it. . It became obvious to me that it was the culture that was to blame and no policy would alter that.

I still believe that these relationships are problematic but it isn’t a policy that is going to change this. It is the culture that will change this. Culture is about how we behave towards others. We hadn’t created a culture where people see their actions as impacting others or as a precedent for what it creates in the future.

If we want a culture where workplace relationships are not toxic or disruptive, what can we create? Let’s say we want a culture where fairness and equity drives how individuals are trained and promoted within the company. A workplace relationship could be in conflict with this culture we are creating. All employees agree to this. Instead of keeping the relationship a secret, the company addresses the potential conflict of interest. They can be open about this and create structures with the team to address this as soon as the potential for conflict arises.

Even as I write this I am finding myself cringing, it still doesn’t feel good to say this. Do I want to go down this road? The reality is that workplace relationships will happen. They should not be ignored. We spend so much time with our co-workers, it almost seems inevitable. The key is to avoid having them disruptive of your culture, and harmful to others.