Are Workplace Romances Ethical Problems?- A Critical Analysis [Part 2]

Last time we left off with the question: Should this social-sexual human behavior be considered unethical merely because it has been linked to sexual harassment cases or because romantic relationships amongst work colleagues is considered immoral by some? 

Utilitarianism.  The issue of workplace romance when assessed from a utilitarian perspective prescribes that organizational leaders would embrace policies and actions which promote happiness among employees (Brown, 2000).  Whichever policy evokes the greatest happiness among employees is the policy that should be imposed whether or not that is the restriction of workplace relationships. Happiness and pleasure are relative and complex and employees may gain both emotional and sexual pleasures by their workplace relationships but administrators may become unhappy if those relationships negatively affect the employee’s productivity. So, whose happiness is to be secured? The decision, based on utilitarian principles, would be based on which action would have positive consequences for the larger society, in this case, the overall organization (Weston, 2008). However, generating the greatest number of benefits for the entire organization may seriously disadvantage certain individuals (Rawls as cited in Johnson, 2012).

Categorical imperative. Deontological ethics argues that choices should be made based on what is morally right (Johnson, 2012). Furthermore, the categorical imperative perspective dictates that people should be treated with dignity and as such should be respected as having the capacity to choose for themselves.  In essence, all decisions entail some moral principle and imply some values judgment (Brown, 2000). The categorical imperative perspective, while theoretically valuable, cannot indicate which principles are “good or right and deserving of respect but it does provide a strategy for evaluating” our contingent principles” (Woermann & Cilliers, 2012, p.448). Consequently, this perspective can urge organizations to adopt certain strategies when undertaking moral considerations (Preiser & Cilliers, 2010).

Justice and rights. The kinds of rights employees have parallel the kind of justice that has been developed in the organization (Brown, 2000). Additionally, employees have contractual and institutional rights and claims for rights are legitimate claims on power or legitimate protests against injustice (Brown, 2000). Furthermore, these rights are embedded in both legal and human rights. While workplace romance is not illegal (Pierce et al., 2008), the issue is whether imposing institutional restrictions or prohibitions is a violation of an employee’s human rights. Employee rights have their basis in employment contracts and organizational roles (Brown, 2000). However, in order for a contract to be valid both the employee and employer would have to have full knowledge of the agreement and the contract did not bind either party to immoral acts (Velasquez as cited in Brown, 2000).  Contracts while legally binding cannot involve the relinquishing of an employee’s human rights because that would render the contract dehumanizing and therefore invalid (Brown, 2000).

Many organizations, including the Academy of Management, the American Bar Association, and American Psychological Association consider workplace romance to be an ethical issue in their codes of ethical conduct (Pierce et al., 2008). Furthermore, despite the inclusion of workplace romance in the ethical codes of some organizations’ management teams are still often faced with the dilemma of balancing legal compliance with values and ethical codes of conduct.  Pierce et al. (2008) found that “it is acceptable practice for organizations to impose ethics-based restrictions on workplace romance and make organizationally-sensible decisions based on pertinent legal and extralegal factors” (p.39). The choice between taking a values-orientated approach versus a compliance-orientated one is a decision that organizations must make when developing policies and programs that affect employees (Roehling & Wright, 2006). Pierce et al. (2008) suggest that organizations should consider informing employees about the potential risks of work place romance from the standpoint of legal ramifications if the romance upon dissolution resurfaces as harassment. That is, employees who willingly become involved in social-sexual behavior with their co-workers may be vulnerable to negative classification by co-workers and management if a sexual harassment claim is made and their sexual history in that regard may be admissible evidence in the case. Employees would then be in a better position to make informed decisions about their actions using their value judgments.

Brown, M.T. (2000). Working ethics: Strategies for decision making and organizational responsibility. Oakland, CA: Regent Press.

Johnson, C.E. (2012). Meeting the ethical challenge: Casting light or shadow. Thousand Oaks,     CA: Sage.

Pierce, C.A., Muslin, I.S., Dudley, C.M. & Aguinis, H. (2008). From charm to harm. A  content-analytic review of sexual harassment court cases involving workplace romance. Management Research, 6(1), 27-45.

Preiser, R. & Cilliers, P. (2010). Unpacking the ethics of complexity: Concluding reflections. In P . Cilliers & R. Preiser (Eds.).Complexity, Difference and Identity (pp. 265 – 287). Dordrecht, NL: Springer.

Roehling, M.V., & Wright, P.M. (2006). Organizationally sensible versus legal-centric approaches to employment decisions. Human Resource Management, 45(4): 605–627.

Weston, A. (2008). A 21st century ethical toolbox (2nd ed.). New York: NY: Oxford University Press.

Woermann, M. & Cilliers, P. (2012). The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics. South African Journal of Philosophy, 31(2), 447-463.

Excerpt from  my academic paper written 6/12


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