Many companies have rules banning bosses from dating subordinates. Photo: iStock Source: The Wall Street Journal

Company policies about office relationships vary, but for senior leaders, message increasingly is ‘just say no’.

Companies have increased scrutiny of consensual relationships among colleagues in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Whatever the corporate dating policy is, the underlying message to senior executives is: Just don’t do it.

Mark Wiseman, a potential successor to BlackRock Inc. Chief Executive Laurence Fink, became the latest high-level boss to run afoul of company rules on romantic relationships at work. The asset manager requires employees to disclose any relationship—whether they are with direct subordinates or with other colleagues to the company. Mr. Wiseman, who said he had engaged in a consensual relationship with a colleague without reporting it, was terminated as a result.

BlackRock’s policy is one of many approaches that companies have taken to police romance in the workplace. Many corporations have nonfraternization rules that prohibit bosses from dating any direct or indirect subordinates, and CEOs at McDonald’s Corp. and Intel Corp. have lost their jobs in the past 18 months over consensual relationships with employees.

Other companies, such as Facebook Inc., have called for employees to disclose an interoffice relationship if they are in the same management chain or there is a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, some prohibit any romantic relationships in the workplace.

If there is one takeaway for bosses at any level, it is that companies would prefer they avoid dating someone at work whatsoever, according to workplace and corporate-governance experts.

Increasingly, organizations are hoping relationships just don’t crop up in their offices at all, said Davia Temin, CEO of Temin and Company, a Manhattan-based reputation and crisis-management firm. Whether it is a direct message or one read between the lines, “some places are saying, ‘Just say no,’” she said.

Some companies have had longstanding policies around relationships at work, but they often weren’t well-enforced rules. That is changing. Avoiding mixing love and work is the safer choice today, Ms. Temin said.

“There is a magnifying glass that is on this kind of behavior right now within the organization, and you have to be smart about that,” she said.

The closer scrutiny has made CEOs more vulnerable. In 2018, the share of nonvoluntary CEO departures at S&P 500 companies climbed to 30.5%, up almost 8 percentage points from 2017, according to a recent Conference Board study. Five of those 12 dismissals were due to personal misconduct allegations or violations of a company dating policy.

Laurie Ruettimann, a human-resources consultant who works with Fortune 500 and technology companies, said that despite policies on the books encouraging employees to disclose their romances, most companies would rather relationships stay secret.

“We just hope people, like, date in private and, if it fizzles out, they handle it like adults, and we don’t need to know about it,” she said.

Many companies are also fuzzy about when, exactly, workers are supposed to come forward. Is it when they want to ask someone out on a date? After a hookup? When they are engaged?

“There’s no management training where HR tells leaders, ‘The moment you have consensual sex with someone you need to come into our office,’” Ms. Ruettimann said.

The rules are often unrealistic, too, she added. For example, in the case of two people having an affair, “If you’re not disclosing it to your significant other, why would you disclose to your HR lady at work?” Ms. Ruettimann said.

Written policies give employers cover if things go awry, she added. If the relationship remained secret, companies can point to the fact that they instructed all employees to disclose relationships. If it was reported, couples are often required to sign waivers releasing the company from complicity and liability.

And companies can lean on policies if they are looking to oust an executive for other reasons. A high salary or workplace drama might be the real motivation for pushing out a top manager, while a relationship could provide a convenient excuse, Ms. Ruettimann said.

In the process of policing relationships at work, some companies may be overreacting, said Jeffrey Cohn, managing partner of Elevate Partners, a company at executive-recruiting firm DHR International. In some cases, he said, boards and HR departments are enacting and enforcing rules to play it safe in the post-#MeToo era rather than crafting dating and disclosure rules that make sense to employees.

“Companies need to figure out the difference between the policy and the culture,” he said. “At a minimum, companies need to do a better job at explaining why their HR policies exist and link them to their core values.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2019 | Vanessa Fuhrmans & Rachel Feintzeig