With Martin G. Moore

Episode #108

Workplace Romance: What could possibly go wrong?!

This episode takes a look at the delicate issue of relationships at work. Why do we still see a revolving door of very senior executives exiting organisations at incredible personal, financial, and reputational cost?

Cultural standards and policies vary wildly from organisation to organisation and, let’s face it, around 1 in 5 of you actually met your current partner at work.

But we’ve seen a massive shift in societal awareness and expectations of relationships in the workplace, especially when these involve a power imbalance.

This episode explores some of the nuances of the issues, and offers a simple guideline for leaders to follow.

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Episode #108 Workplace Romance: What could possibly go wrong?!

Hey there, and welcome to Episode 108 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode: Workplace Romance: What could possibly go wrong?! Well, look, I’ve never been accused of shying away from the tough issues and this week’s episode isn’t going to change that. I want to take a really good look at the minefield that is workplace romance. I know that many of you actually met your current partners in the office. Statistically speaking, that’s 15 to 20% of you. We’ve seen a massive shift in societal awareness and expectations of relationships in the workplace, especially, where there’s a power imbalance of some type. The #metoo movement first emerged in 2006, but it wasn’t until late in 2017, after the news broke on Harvey Weinstein, that Alyssa Milano sent it viral and it really took off. Since then, confusion has reigned supreme in the corporate environment, as management teams and boards try to come to terms with how to handle relationships that develop inside their organisations.

I hope that over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, I can convince you that the downside of courting romance at work for leaders far outweighs the upside no matter how attractive he, she, or they might appear. So we’ll start with a look at a timely and relevant TV series. I’ll give a bunch of examples of recent cases coming from the corporate world that give us some indication of the shifting standards and I’ll finish with some rules of thumb for how to not get burnt in an expensive and career limiting situation. So let’s get into it.

I want to ease into this topic by dipping our toes into the water of fiction. But before I do, it’s worth us asking ourselves one very important question. Why isn’t this just incredibly straightforward? I don’t think there are many humans on the planet who would disagree with the following statement. Every individual has the right to live their lives and especially to do their work completely free from sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances and discrimination based on gender identification. But this is not as black and white as the statement might suggest. Although most people agree with this in principle, opinions vary wildly on what behavioural situations constitute an overstep. And I’m talking about the good people here, not the bad actors. When it comes to the workplace, we don’t even really have a consistent understanding of what behaviour is criminal, what behaviour is legal, but intolerable, what private, intimate behaviours should be condemned, and what’s simply a matter for two consenting adults.

Now highlighting these dynamics is an incredibly powerful television series released recently called The Morning Show, and in Australia it was called Morning Wars. It has a fabulous cast, and I was completely surprised by the depth and nuance with which these issues were dealt. The Morning Show takes a behind the scenes look at what transpires with a small group of people that produce America’s favourite TV show. Now the story begins with the show losing its longstanding hero and anchorman, Mitch Kessler, when he’s fired on the back of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list. I just want to briefly identify the different relationships that are showcased, to give you an idea of some of the complexities here. Well first, there’s Mitch. He’s a star and he has been for years. He’s used to getting what he wants, and having all sorts of people fawning over him due to his fame and notoriety.

He appears to have developed a strong sense of entitlement and his infidelities in the workplace are no secret. Now Mitch happens to be married, but I don’t want to get too judgmental and moralistic about this. Everyone makes their choices about their personal integrity and it’s only loosely related to the abhorrent behaviour that we witness from Mitch in this show. What I’m saying is that married or single, it doesn’t make the behaviour any better or worse. Mitch has a string of relationships, normally with people who are junior to him in the organisation. Well, you know, pretty much everyone was junior to him, apart from his cohost and the show’s producer. Now the power dynamic here is critical, and we’ll come back to it later in this episode. Then, there was the string of victims that he left behind. One of these finally made a complaint to HR that saw Mitch removed from the show.

The interesting thing about this particular relationship is that each of them saw their brief interlude in a completely different way. And I’m talking 180 degrees different. Mitch felt as though it was nothing more than a consensual act between adults. Both of them were intelligent, experienced, and capable. He may have even convinced himself that there was a little imbalance in her favour because of his star quality and his ability to positively influence her career. But from her perspective, it was sexual abuse, pure and simple. As she says at one point, “How do you say no to Mitch Kessler?” Yet being fired from the show, left him feeling like a victim. Seriously. Then there’s another relationship which has both an age and arguably a power differential, but this appears to be a loving, healthy, two way relationship. Objectively, and on face value, it’s not remarkably different from some of Mitch’s relationships.

One critical differentiator though, was that the man involved in this relationship, demonstrated an innate sensitivity for the woman, and at least some awareness of the relationship and workplace dynamics, that Mitch was way too egotistical to discern. But HR has got to make policy, right? So the net catches all relationships regardless of the nuance. Then, there’s the rest of the cast and crew who knew what Mitch was up to, but for various reasons, decided to remain silent. Each of these people goes through their own struggle, rationalising what it all meant and why they didn’t actually say or do anything. Now, if I can just digress briefly, there was a fantastic blog written in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein fiasco by a screenwriter named Scott Rosenberg. He basically said that almost as egregious as the heinous acts committed by Weinstein, was all the faux, shock, and disgust, portrayed by many of the industry’s luminaries.

Why? Because Rosenberg said, “We all knew. Maybe not to the full extent, but we all knew. And I know you knew, because we spoke about it, and yet we did nothing”. And then, let’s get back to The Morning Show, there were the really evil ones who knew exactly what was going on, understood it for what it was, and chose to cover it up for years because Mitch’s ratings were so good. Does that remind you of anything? Oh yeah, the cliche of the rain maker who brings in loads of revenue for a business, but is actually an abominable human who treats others with callous indifference. Many leaders keep these people in jobs because they produce financial outcomes, but I pretty much had zero tolerance for that crap. But it’s how the people in positions of power deal with, or don’t deal with the offenders, that sets the standard for any organisation. This is what builds culture. The standard you walk past is the standard you set.

Alright, let’s look at some real life examples just to highlight how our collective societal psyche is now seeing this, and particularly, the lack of consistency emerging in corporations globally. I’m basing these examples on various media reports, so please treat them with the appropriate confidence level as to the facts. The point is to give you an opportunity to reflect on the complexities of not only deciding what to do with leaders who may be abusing their power, but also the impact that has on brand, culture and ultimately, people’s lives. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved, not just the ones who become famous for all the wrong reasons, but the people who have to make the decisions, about how to deal with them. If you’re the leader having to make a decision, what do you do? Let’s start with a look at Intel.

Now, Intel has taken an unequivocal stance on office romance. Apparently, Intel’s policy, which has been in place since long before the first Me Too hashtag was tweeted, prohibits any managers, regardless of seniority, from having any romantic relationships with another person, regardless of whether or not they’re in that manager’s direct reporting line. Well, what I like about this is that it is crystal clear. The same expectations are set for everyone with no variation or exception. If people choose to flout the policy, then it would be no surprise when they lose their job. They certainly can’t plead ignorance. But check this out at the highest level, the CEO of Intel was forced to resign in 2018 for doing exactly that, conducting a consensual relationship with another employee. We’ve seen the resignations of other big names recently as well. Steve Easterbrook, the former global CEO of McDonald’s. Now he was sacked for the relatively minor offence of having an inappropriate relationship over text and video with a female employee, whatever that means. He was jettisoned with a golden parachute. But now, it’s emerged

that he may have had many affairs, which he allegedly lied to the Board about during his tenure. McDonald’s is reportedly now trying to claw back some of Easterbrook’s pay out. Then, there’s Mark Wiseman, an executive at BlackRock capital, the world’s largest investment firm, who was sacked for failing to disclose a relationship with a female employee. In Australia recently, there was the stunning example of the Australian Mutual Providence Society or AMP. Last month, AMP sacked the head of its Australian business, Alex Wade. The many allegations of his sexual harassment and misconduct could no longer be ignored and the Board asked him for his resignation. But who did the AMP Board announce as his replacement? A gentleman by the name of Bo Pahari. However, Mr. Pahari wasn’t exactly a clean skin himself. He too had form. Not so long ago, he was fined half a million dollars, to settle out a sexual harassment case at the same company. I shit, you not.

The Board knew all about his past conduct, and still promoted him into the CEO role. The word tone deaf comes to mind here. I mean, you just can’t make this shit up can you? Francesco De Ferrari, the group CEO of AMP, was quoted in the media as saying that he didn’t think the company was different from any other large company. And he didn’t believe that there was a systemic issue there. Well, if two consecutive appointees to the top job at the Australian arm of AMP’s business, have a history of sexual misconduct findings against them, then I’m not sure that I understand what the word systemic actually means. And even if these are isolated cases, what does it say about the standards of behaviour that are set for everyone to follow? We call that, tone from the top. While I’m on a roll,

let’s talk about Pat Regan at QBE. Now he was sacked in late August under a sexual harassment cloud. His predecessor, John Neal, left the business in 2018 for what appeared to be performance reasons. But Neal’s 2017 bonus was docked by $550,000 for not declaring his consensual relationship with his executive assistant. She also happened to deal with the Board on certain matters, which was clearly a conflict of interest. Now Regan lasted around two years and was sacked for what the Board described as inappropriate workplace communications. But the company was rather nonspecific about what had actually gone on, and it was really light on detail. Having said that, it was also reported that the independent investigation found that the complaint against Regan did not constitute sexual harassment. This was a decisive, no tolerance move by the Board, but it’s what happened next that was most interesting. Regan’s performance over his couple of years had been really excellent in all other aspects.

Is it any wonder then that some investors called this decision an overreaction, with one going so far as to say that the decision to instantly dismiss Mr. Regan was another example of poor, corporate transparency, on matters of workplace conduct. He went on to say that corporate Australia can ill afford for board decisions to be anything but measured and appropriate. Reputation saving decisions, which are not fair, are as unacceptable as inaction when warranted. Regan reportedly lost $10 million of unvested shares with a measly $310,000 pay out, presumably in lieu of serving at his notice period. In stark contrast to this, a client of mine that I obviously can’t name for reasons of confidentiality, has a very senior leader who was caught having an affair with a much younger, more junior female member of staff. She wasn’t in his direct reporting line, but the two work closely together in a way that you can imagine a senior line manager and a functional specialist would. In that case, the CEO decided that it was a relationship between two consenting adults,

and it wasn’t something the company would take action on. Apparently, this was none of the company’s business. Well, okay, fair enough. I don’t know the facts of the matter, or what the mitigating circumstances might be. My point is though, that if I know about it, then the whole company knows. And from the outside, people will read certain signals about what the company will tolerate, its culture, and how diligent it is about protecting its people in cases where there’s a power imbalance. It sends a loud signal to the organisation about the standard required of its leaders, and where the lines of acceptable behaviour are drawn. Now, these examples demonstrate how incredibly inconsistent the treatment of these scenarios is by different companies. And a lot of them happen on a case by case basis, which we don’t know the facts of. But you would have almost no chance of predicting what might happen to you, if you were caught in the act, so to speak.

Let me just finish off with a quick guide for leaders on how to handle workplace relationships. So here’s a rule of thumb, you ready? Don’t do it. Now, I know that just say no approach doesn’t work, as Nancy Reagan found out with her anti drug campaign in the eighties. But wherever there’s a power imbalance, it is indefensible by definition. So if you’re a leader, don’t let your ego or your need for flattery, get in the way of sensible decision making. It’s not easy, I know that. There’s a lot of DNA programming there to cloud your professional judgement and to push you into an encounter with a work colleague. But this is part of the discipline of a strong leader. Friendly, but not friends. Like anything else, you need to make decisions for the right reasons. Forget about the potential penalties, shame and embarrassment, think about the impact on company culture.

As a leader, you’re showing your people what’s acceptable and what’s not. And this is the same level of self centeredness as making any other decision based on self-interest. So for example, maximising your personal bonus and reward, rather than pursuing the best longterm outcome for the company. Or doing something that protects your personal empire, when it’s counterproductive to the overall business. If you do find yourself in a situation where you’re truly in love and can’t suppress the feeling, just ask yourself one important question. Are you happy to surrender your job for the sake of the relationship? If you’re not, then give yourself an upper cut and stop your shit. The bottom line is, there’s almost 7 billion people in the world today. Do you really want to mess with the 10 or 20 people who are in your immediate proximity, but who could potentially do irrevocable damage to your career? Who could destroy any credibility you have with your people? Who could dilute the meritocracy due to perceptions of favouritism? Who could distract you from giving your best to the people you’re paid to lead? Hey, look, it’s totally your call, but I know what I’d be doing.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 108. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to share this episode with your network because that’s how we reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, Servant Leadership.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can, to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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