Office romances aren’t the problem (Editorial)

Relationships between bosses and their reports leave the organization vulnerable to lawsuits and affect employee morale
By John Hobel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/25/2005

Office romances are a fact of life in the 21st century, says recently fired City of Toronto bureaucrat Pam Coburn.

Coburn is involved in a workplace relationship that made national headlines and put the issue of office romances on many lips — which is too bad because office romances are not the problem here.

While Coburn, and many media outlets, cite statistics that 58 per cent of Canadians say they have been involved in an office romance and 22 per cent met their spouse at work, Coburn was pursuing a relationship with her second-in-command Joseph Carnevale. And that changes everything.

Coburn, who earned $140,000 annually as head of the city’s licensing division, and Carnevale have both been fired by the city for misconduct and conflict of interest violations.

Carnevale started on a temporary contract and was promoted three times in one year. It’s alleged Coburn gave him an advanced copy of the job description and a heads up on his last promotion. Coburn says Carnevale’s last promotion occurred a couple of months before she became emotionally involved. The extent of the affair is unclear, but Coburn described Carnevale as a “soulmate” she was exploring a future with.

But romances between co-workers should not be confused with relationships between bosses and their reports.

First off, an organization opens itself to charges of sexual harassment when someone in a supervisory position has a relationship with an employee.

Then, there’s the effect on employee morale. Workplace dynamics that come into play when one person is in a special relationship with the boss make it virtually impossible to create a cohesive, mutually supportive team. It’s a negative atmosphere that can turn even worse if the relationship sours and all that baggage gets pulled into the workplace as well.

And outside the immediate division or work group, the entire company is affected as others wonder about the level of nepotism in the organization. Equally, the capabilities of those promoted are drawn into question.

The case of Coburn and Carnevale includes a number of twists and turns. Was the whistle-blower who snitched on Coburn connected to her attempts to clean up her division? That’s a fascinating detail best left to Hollywood screen writers interested in the case, but it’s a red herring on the boss/employee relationship question. If anything, the need to protect oneself from retaliation is a reason to avoid involvement in such relationships.

Was Coburn unfairly disciplined because she was a woman? I have heard of situations where gender has determined the outcome of office romances. But, this is another red herring. Relationships with reports are inappropriate regardless of the genders involved.

Is Coburn being treated more harshly because the city feels itself besieged following the earlier disclosure of inappropriate relationships between city officials and a slick computer salesman in a leasing scandal that saw a $40-million dollar deal mushroom to more than $100 million in costs? It’s indeed unfortunate timing for Coburn, but again irrelevant if the golden rule is observed: Don’t get involved with the help.

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