Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Love Conquers All -- Even Ethics?

Relationships at work can be a tricky business, especially if one of the partners is directly above the other in the company's hierarchy. Ethical complications arise for two reasons: (1) there are serious questions about misuse of power and (2) there are responsibilities to one's partner that may conflict with the responsibilities one has to the job and other co-workers.

You always have to worry whether the person with less power is really acting completely voluntarily? Does he or she sense any sort of coercion to begin or continue the relationship? While it may seem like just two people when away from the office, there is a contextual imbalance that cannot help but color the relationship in any number of ways.

On the other hand, is the person lower down on the organization chart using the hook-up in order to manipulate the boss and gain undeserved power? Whether it is the early stages of a blossoming romance or merely a matter of casual physical gratification, co-workers have reason to be concerned. If it is a care-based relationship, then one does take on the responsibility of putting one's beloved before others. If it is a sentiment less noble driving the interest, then there is always the worry that the partner with the power will be fishing for additional favor. Either way, there is always concern that the boss will play favorites by manipulating work load, schedule, pay raises, evaluations, whatever he has control over.

When you are a supervisor, it is your job to make sure that all runs smoothly and that you treat your people fairly. Throwing romance or sex into the mix is asking for big trouble pragmatically, but is it morally problematic for a manager to initiate or respond to initial overtures from a subordinate?

The case is easier when the boss is simply looking for cheap, sweaty fun. Yeah, that's problematic. But what if there is real chemistry? What if there is a chance that this might be the one? Is there a special moral status for love? A friend in a similar situation once received the advice from a more senior colleague, "Don't do it unless you are sure it is for real. It's ok, if and only if she is, in fact, the one." It's only morally right, if she is Miss Right. Is this right? Does "happily ever after" trump "do unto others"?

One line to support that view might look like something we could find in an Aristotelian-type analysis where we determine human virtues by looking at the nature of humans and arguing that a truly fulfilled human life would be one that includes one's soul mate. Think of Aristophanes' myth in Plato's Symposium, his dialogue on love. Plato has the poet Aristophanes contend that once upon a time humans were roughly spherical with two faces, four arms and four legs until the gods split us apart and now we are destined to roam the Earth incomplete, in search of our other half. It is the essential task of being human to search for that person who will literally complete you. To place workplace etiquette in front of this deep urge is absurd. True love is our highest aspiration giving it a privileged moral standing.

Folks on the other side of the question will hear this sort of reasoning and want to puke. Soul mates as foundational notion in ethics? Who needs Kant when you can just read Cosmo? "51 Ways to Satisfy His Categorical Imperative." Harlequin romances are not legitimate textbooks for courses in moral theory. The job of a manager is to manage, the job of a player is to play. Unlike Frank Robinson with the '75 Indians, you are not a player-manager. You accepted the position of manager and that contractually binds you to certain obligations and one is not to pick up the employees.

Further, how could you know that this is your soul mate -- should any such notion actually be meaningful? You couldn't possibly know something that deep from casual workplace contact. You could only find out through a deep sense of who the person is and that takes lots of time, trust, and familiarity that you don't have when contemplating your first move. Really, all you know is, "Hey, there's an attractive person who seems really nice" and that is surely far too thin a reed to hang any sort of heavy moral argument on.

So, who wins here? When it comes to morality...what's love got to do with it?