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My affair, company business?

As Dr Santrupt Mishra, Director, HR and IT, Aditya Birla Group puts it, “Moral and ethical judgements are left to the individual. If my organisation doesn’t suffer, it’s none of my business.”

india Updated: Feb 03, 2008 00:40 IST

What happens when a senior (married) manager starts having an affair with a junior (single) employee in his department? Colleagues gossip, and anonymous letters or emails do the rounds. The management stays out of it — unless work suffers, or the duo spends company money on romantic escapades.

As Dr Santrupt Mishra, Director, HR and IT, Aditya Birla Group puts it, “Moral and ethical judgements are left to the individual. If my organisation doesn’t suffer, it’s none of my business.”

It is only if the junior gets a hefty salary hike or a promotion that matters get murky. “If an organisation believes in merit and other, extraneous factors come in, the system should be transparent enough to catch them. If a person gets ahead by unfair means — whether through an affair or chamchagiri — team morale is affected,” says Dr Mishra.

“Sometimes there can be a subtle abuse of position and in that case I would have to take stringent action — like shifting one of the two employees to another location.”

He adds that he would also step in if an employee’s spouse complained to him. “I would counsel the person, saying, your personal life is not my problem, but it shouldn’t come to my office.”

Romances between single people elicit pretty much the same reaction. As DK Srivastava, senior vice-president, Corporate HR at HCL Technologies, says, “It’s a personal affair, as long as it does not affect their work. If they get married, we ensure that they do not have a reporting relationship; one of them will be moved to another project.”

To tell or not to tell...

Abroad, however, it is a different matter. In the UK, where seven out of 10 workers admit to having had an office affair, quite a few companies now make their employees sign contracts that make it mandatory for them to inform the organisation if they are in a relationship with a colleague. This is largely to preempt charges of unfair practices filed by other employees or of sexual harassment when an affair goes sour.

Dan Chapman, an employment lawyer at Leathes Prior, a law firm in the UK, explains, “A contractual policy (which is binding upon employees) might provide, for example, that any relationship needs to be disclosed to the employer (and a failure to disclose would amount to gross misconduct).” If the company decides the relationship will not affect its interests, it continues; if not, tough decisions have to be taken.

Chapman adds, “One employer that I represent has a policy which says that if two employees become romantically involved, then they must decide between themselves, within a certain time frame, which one of them is to resign and leave the organisation. If they do not do this, then both employees will be dismissed.”

But how does one define a ‘relationship’, and at which point do employees decide it’s time to tell the boss? Chapman says, “The employees have to make a judgment call as to when the liaison has become serious enough to amount to a relationship or romantic involvement, and thus, when the obligation to disclose it arises.” It is not a decision to be taken lightly, for says Chapman, “If the employer decides the employee has left it too late to disclose, the employee may be in some difficulties.”

Now, if much of this sounds rather vague and tricky to implement, well, we’re talking matters of the heart, and there’s just this far legislation can go.