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HUMAN RESOURCES

Why Can't We Be Friends?
 

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So you're working on site, and the first thing you notice when you sit down at your desk is the person right next to you -- a total babe. You think, "A meal. A movie. Amore." But IPs, beware: a new project may mean new friends, but it can also mean new headaches, a fact that any human resources consultant, employee handbook, or Cupid Cop will be able to tell you.

"As a rule, having a love relationship with a co-worker is always a bad idea," advises Penny Kahan, a lawyer at Penny Nathan Kahan & Associates in Chicago, a law firm specializing in employment-related issues. "It's fine when it's going on, but once it ends, it's difficult to see one another on a day-to-day basis. And a work relationship stirs up issues such as preferential treatment and conflict of loyalties. With consultancy work, if someone has to leave, it will be the person who isn't a full-time employee. If your goal is continued employment, I would say, 'Don't do it."

Along these same lines, Harriet Snyder, a freelance feature film production manager and coordinator from Philadelphia, makes it a point not to establish romantic relationships while on a project. "I'm on a job for a relatively short, intense period, and there is a lot of work to be done." After production is finished, she says, "I am aware that my next opportunity will be determined by the reputation I have earned on this last job and my professionalism."

On the other hand, Sarah Norwood met Peter Brigham when she was a set designer for a movie in L.A. Peter, a divorced architect from Chicago, had come to California for a few weeks to work on a complex design as a favor to his director friend. "It was the last thing we expected, to run into each other at that juncture," Sarah says. "We were both at vulnerable points in our lives and going through a lot of changes. It helped that it was a short-term project and we were peers. We got to know one another during the short time Peter was in L.A., then we burned up the telephone lines when he went back to Chicago. That's when we really got to know each other. It was magical."

Peter now lives in L.A.

As an IP, you've probably been out of the office for a while, so this may be news to you, but personal relationships in the workplace have become everyone's business. Human resources managers often have to ask questions about their employees' private lives, the courts have had to come up with new theories to apply to new situations, and the work environment has spawned a new category of office personality, the Cupid Cop, an employee who complains that a personal relationship is disrupting the work environment. Such a complaint has become the litmus test for relationships in some workplaces. If the relationship bothers someone, the couple could be questioned by Human Resources, reprimanded by their manager, perhaps even asked to change departments or geographical locations. Or maybe they'll just have to sign a document stating that their relationship is a "welcome relationship," just in case something messy happens.

Michael J. Salmanson, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents both employers and employees and who also writes employee handbooks, says that the best advice is to proceed with caution. "I don't see anything wrong with it," Michael says when discussing work relationships from an employment lawyer's viewpoint. "You see, I met my estranged wife at a law firm." But he quickly adds, "We were colleagues and on the same level." He cautions that some companies have very strict anti-fraternization policies that forbid employees to date. He's not a believer in such policies and finds that most clients are willing to tolerate fraternization provided that it doesn't interfere with work relationships. "The better companies write up their policies in their handbooks. For example, they'll state that you're allowed to date but not if you're in the same department or if you have oversight or management responsibilities."

According to a Society for Human Resource Management survey, a quarter of American companies now have policies dealing with romance. Half of these are written policies. As savvy IPs, it is in your interest to know your client's philosophy toward personal relationships in the workplace.

Marjorie Brody, President of Brody Communications Ltd. in Elkins, Pa., and author of the Complete Business Handbook and the 21st Century Pocket Guides to Proper Business Protocol, says that "the bottom line is that a friendship or love relationship will impact your decisions at work. That's a fact of life. So there'll be trade-offs, especially with 'direct buying relationships' -- that is, those situations where a company is buying your services. For example, you could lose the account, your boss could reassign you, or they could relocate you to another area or region. A consultant is at risk more than a full-time employee. If you think it's worth it, fine. But it should be kept quiet, it should not be office gossip. Your [professional] behavior should be beyond reproach. Yet at the same time, you don't want people speculating, so if the relationship evolves and you become a couple, discuss it with management, bring it out in the open. Say something like, 'This is what's happening. If you want someone else to take over the account...' Be the one to bring it up. If you're open about it, it can't come back in your face."

When asked if she thought the Clinton-Lewinsky incident affected office environments, Marjorie says yes, but only in the short term. "During that period of time, I gave many interviews and was continually asked for advice in regards to gift giving. For a while we were sensitive about the issue. But we have short-term memories."

Dr. Luann Linquist, a counselor and media expert from La Jolla, Calif., advises, "When you go into a work situation, you must be clear about your purpose. You must ask yourself what your purpose is, not what your hormones are saying. You must stay 'in purpose' when entering a work situation, you must be conscious of your intention. If you're there to get the job done and another game plan enters into the situation, you're not staying in purpose. But if you go into a workplace looking for a relationship, then that's your purpose. After all, every work situation requires relationships of some kind; you can't do the job without forming relationships. But you must be clear about what kind of relationships you're asking from your workplace. Consciousness is the key here."

Policies on personal relationships will depend upon the culture and value system of a workplace. Every office has its own particular set of spoken, unspoken, written, and unwritten rules. But on-site IPs have a responsibility to find out what they are. Are you working in a creative and progressive workplace? An old-school corporation? A small business that hired you without running a credit check, urine analysis, DNA diagnosis, and criminal background check? Each of these work environments may require a slightly different stance towards personal relationships.

Go forth and go on site, IPs. And fall in love if that's the way it plays. But before you lose your heart, use your head.

Copyright © 2000 Aquent. All rights reserved.

Last updated: Mar 1, 2000




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