Why HR shouldn’t be the ‘dating police’

Remember when there was more in the news than the pandemic and the presidential election? When #MeToo shined attention on the need for HR to deal more aggressively with sexual harassment?

One of the issues that concerned me then was the fact that nearly all employers allow dating in the workplace, which means they allow efforts to begin romantic and intimate relationships in their workplace. My bet then was that employers, like it or not—and probably not—were going to end up as dating police.

And so it begins, according to several UK papers, which recently reported on new rules at Blackrock, the extremely large and influential investment company.

Let’s acknowledge that financial companies, with their fiduciary obligations, have a special need to be concerned about improper behavior. The concern here seems to have more to do with possible conflicts of interest than with sexual harassment, but it nevertheless leads to regulating dating.

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The company already had a rule requiring that employees “register” any relationship they had with a fellow employee. Most companies have a simpler policy, just prohibiting dating across certain roles. The new Blackrock rule requires that employees report relationships with fellow employees and also with employees of vendors who do work with Blackrock, with employees of clients of Blackrock and, it seems, employees of any organization with which the company has a business relationship.

I’m sure there are subtleties and nuances in the policies that the papers did not report, so let’s just talk about what these reported rules would mean. Rather than prohibiting certain kinds of relationships, the employer in this case would require that the employees report every relationship that had the potential for a conflict. Then the company would determine whether it is a conflict and what to do about it.

This certainly sounds creepy, but before we get to that conclusion, what counts as a “relationship”?  The policy says it is any relationship “susceptible to perceived impropriety.” That includes family members. Close friend? Probably not. Someone you are dating? Define “dating,” but probably yes. A friend with “benefits”? Probably. Imagine people with complicated personal lives, dating more than one person or separated but still married and beginning a new relationship. Should you tell your romantic partner that you have registered your relationship with your employer? Probably yes, but at what point? Should you wait until after you’ve met their parents? Is this like a “promise ring”? (“Honey, I just wanted you to know that I registered our relationship today.”) Blackrock’s policies mean that the company requires that it knows more about your love life than your mother does.

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A big company like Blackrock has thousands of business relationships, certainly thousands of clients, and there could literally be millions of employees in those businesses with which it is connected. It would not be surprising if a majority of employees had some relationship with some employee connected to one of those organizations. Every time the company changes business relationships—gets new clients, changes vendors—existing relationships become new, reportable conflicts.

To flag situations where conflicts were possible, you would have to know not only whether your employees had a relationship with someone working for an organization in your business ecosystem but also what role your employee’s relationship partner played in it. Presumably, that requires constant updating from your employees. I suppose employees would also want the company to know when the relationship is over, so they would be reporting “delisting” relationships.

It is hard to imagine all the staff required to keep track of all these possible relationships and then vet them.

If I am an employee in a company with a policy like this, what is my incentive to comply? Most likely, if the company decides the relationship is a conflict, I would be reassigned to some role where no conflict is possible, which is disruptive at best. Maybe the company will ask the vendor or client that employs your relationship partner to reassign them. Wouldn’t that be fun for your relationship? Knowing the possible resistance to reporting, will the company check your Facebook account to see if you’ve left something off your reporting? How should it deal with “helpful” fellow employees who just want to make sure the company knows who you are dating?

Why not instead rely on a much simpler rule that employees should just avoid any personal relationships that create conflicts of interest with the company, no matter where they might occur? They could still be fired if they had them and did not deal with it. The only answer is because we don’t trust them to do so. Instead, we are going to make them report all their relationships, keeping them updated, which we will then monitor. Someone willing to act truly inappropriately with respect to their employer is not going to report their relationship in any case, so it is not obvious what the advantage is here.

Does any part of this sound like a good idea?

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