CXO

Ask the Leadership Coach: Sex, code, and rock'n'roll

Most professionals realize that personal relationships at the workplace are likely to end poorly. Some can even kill one's career. This week, our leadership coach John M. McKee answers letters from two individuals who've found themselves dealing with this situation.

 These days, a company of any size has a sexual harassment policy that governs the acceptable behavior and relationships between its employees. Often the company even sponsors additional training on the topic due to the serious consequences of romantic relationships going sour, not the least of which is potential legal liability. However, we all know that this doesn't stop such relationships from forming, especially when the feeling is mutual — at least, in the beginning. Everyone thinks they can be discreet and handle it, but workplace affairs have a way of fizzling out, and when they do, it can be disastrous. The situations below should serve as a reminder and a warning, if you're tempted to break the rules.

I'm in trouble.  I'm in a senior executive role that I've always wanted and I'm good at it.  But I made a big mistake - until about 2 months ago I was intimately involved with the CEO.  He knew from the beginning that I didn't feel good about the situation and only entered into because I hoped it would result in a long-term commitment and perhaps even marriage. However, after 2 years, it became clear we were never going to take our relationship to the next level despite his promises to the contrary.  I broke it off.  He seemed fine about it at the time, but recently has become overly focused on any missed objectives in my department.  Additionally, he's often sarcastic about my abilities in front of my peers.  Any advice?

Anna in Toronto, Canada

Unfortunately I have seen this situation many times Anna. I'm sorry you now find yourself in such a tough spot.  Take a look at the letter below from Erik, and see my comments below.

A new consultant recently joined a project in my office.  A younger woman, she is very good at code; but to do her job she needed to get up to speed on our operations.  Because this is a critical project, and I am the PM involved, I offered to help her.  We connected well, often working after hours to complete key timelines, and occasionally going for dinner afterward to continue our discussions.  Now I find myself very attracted to her. At 54 years old, I may be actually in love for the first time in my life.  She's smart, cool, sexy and truly understands my passion for this work - unlike other women who rarely show any interest in my career.  There is no company policy against dating consultants and I'd never disclose proprietary information.  Should I go for this?

Erik in Hamburg, Germany

This reminds me of one of those road signs we might see on car trips, "CAUTION. BUMPY ROADS AHEAD. SLOW DOWN!"  You've found yourself in one of those potentially life changing situations Erik.  I'm going to tie my advice for you and Anna together because each of you is dealing with similar issues involving the heart and the head.

First, let's consider the twin issues of "what's legal" and "what's smart."  As a leader, Anna's boss - and, potentially, you as well, Erik - failed to consider how seriously such relationships could affect your future career, and at the very least, your current job status.

  • Getting personally involved with a subordinate usually compromises one's objectivity. Appropriate business decisions are less likely. The same can be said when having a relationship with a consultant. Poor results may be overlooked or downplayed and praise may be given too easily, etc.
  • When one is personally involved with someone in a position to impact his or her career, they become beholden to that individual. The senior player can take unfair advantage of that mentality at work - and elsewhere.
  • The credibility of each "partner" is called into question by others within the organization, potentially hurting each person's career path. (You can almost hear the comments as soon as the rumors start: "He thinks with the wrong part of his anatomy" or "she's going up the ladder on her back".)

Ultimately, good people can get hurt, and organizations can suffer the consequences of your office romances.  Here is a tried and true business rule  I suggest people keep in mind:

Always avoid mixing business with your love life. As Anna's already realized, when one part goes sour, it can have a terrible affect on the other. In her case, she attempted to do the "right thing" when the CEO admitted that this was really an affair only. But he has the power in the business relationship, so he's letting her know he didn't like her decision. In Erik's situation, the younger consultant has stirred up something that he may not have known existed. He's excited and wants to move to another level with her. Before moving forward, he needs to consider how it may impact both his and her career if such a relationship grew and became common knowledge.

Finally, some career advice: Anna, it's likely that your career is definitely stalled - if not fatally damaged - if you stay where you are. Act accordingly.

Erik, if you really have not been in love before, this new relationship may be awesome, but consider the consequences if this doesn't work out. Use that professional training that made you a PM.  Consider all possible outcomes before moving too quickly. Be certain that this is the right step for you and be willing to accept the fall-out, even to the point of having to find another job.

Do you have a leadership question for John?

If you have a leadership question or need some advice on a leadership topic, email John at enews6@techrepublic.com with "Leadership Coach" as your subject line.

About John McKee

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

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