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


Are Workplace Romances Ethical Problems?- A Critical Analysis [Part 1]

The workplace is progressively becoming recognized as a sexually-charged environment (Morgan & Davidson, 2008; Riach & Wilson, 2007). Researchers, who have pioneered this field of study, have defined workplace romance as some form of intimate relationship between two employees in the same organization who have both expressed their romantic feelings in the form of some intimate association (Foley & Powell, 1999; Mainiero, 1989; Quinn, 1977). Individuals are increasingly meeting intimate partners in their workplace for various reasons including being in contact with work colleagues for extended hours in the office (Schultz, 2003). Exploring romantic relationships at work therefore has been researched since the mid-1970s (Biggs, Matthewman & Fultz, 2012). However, despite its increased occurrence, relatively little is known about this organizational phenomenon (Riach & Wilson, 2007). This may be because individuals have kept their relationships confidential for issues of privacy or for reasons associated with related promotional status or salary increase (Biggs, 2010). Pioneering studies have found that such relations can have negative effects on worker relations and productivity (Mainiero, 1989) while others have shown that such relationships can increase productivity and accelerate job satisfaction (Biggs et al., 2012; Pierce, Byrne & Aguinis,1996; Quinn, 1977).

Ethical leadership involves personal moral behavior and moral influence (Johnson, 2012). Leaders are responsible for the ethical behavior of others within their organization and as such, they must ensure that a positive ethical climate is percolated into their organization in order for morality to be developed in both them and their followers so that ethical choices can be followed through (Johnson, 2012). Additionally, healthy ethical climates are marked by zero tolerance for destructive behavior which is ideally clarified in organizational policies. However, instituting some policies against certain human behaviors are more challenging than others.  Workplace romance and sexual harassment for instance are similarly types of social-sexual behavior prevalent in organizations. Sexual harassment is considered workplace misbehavior (Johnson, 2012) but these two behaviors are not legally synonymous because workplace romance is legal and sexual harassment is not (Pierce, Muslin, Dudley & Aguinis, 2008). While distinct, Pierce and Aguinis (2009) argue that workplace romance cannot be clearly understood in isolation of sexually harassing behavior because sexual harassment claims in organizations often have dissolved workplace romance as an antecedent. In response, some organizations have imposed ethics-based restrictions on workplace romance (Parks, 2006). However, 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?  Stay tuned for Part 2!

Biggs, D.M. (2010).  Management consulting: A guide for students. London, U.K.: Cengage Learning.

Biggs, D., Matthewman, L. & Fultz, C. (2012). Romantic relationships in organizational settings: Attitudes on workplace romance in the UK and USA. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 27(4), 271-285.

Foley, S. & Powell, G.N. (1999). Not all is fair in love and work: Coworkers’ preferences for and responses to managerial interventions regarding workplace romances. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20(7), 1043-56.

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

Mainiero, L.A. (1989).  Office romance: Love, power, and sex in the workplace. New York, NY: Rawson Associates.

Morgan, L.M. & Davidson, M.J. (2008). Sexual dynamics in mentoring relationships – a critical review. British Journal of Management, 19, S120-S9.

Parks, M. (2006). 2006 Workplace romance poll findings. Retrieved from Society for Human Resource Management website:

Pierce, C.A., Byrne, D. & Aguinis, H. (1996).  Attraction in organizations: A model of workplace romance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 17, 5-32.

Quinn, R.E. (1977).  Coping with cupid: The formation, impact, and management of romantic relationships in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 22(1), 30-45.

Riach, K. and Wilson, F. (2007). Don’t screw the crew: exploring the rules of engagement in organizational romance. British Journal of Management, 18, 79-92.

Schultz, V. (2003). The sanitized workplace. Yale Law Review, 112(8), 2063-2191.

Codes of Conduct in these Changing Times


Codes of conduct which are punishment-based are generally drafted based on previous unethical behavior and actions. However, they are not usually updated to evolve with and correspond to rapidly changing sectors and industries. This inability to revise a code regularly may present areas of ambiguity because if the code is silent on a specific behavior or action then employees and managers may assume that it is not forbidden or deemed unethical.  Many codes of conduct being enforced today have not been amended to address technological advances. Some which have been amended are still not aligned with the changing times and still fail to capture many of the emerging categories of malfeasance in modern times. For instance, some codes of ethical behavior and conduct for social workers have not been revised for many years and as such do not include provisions aligned with cyber world and illicit behaviors such as cybersex and cyber-bullying.  Even those codes that have been recently drafted or amended remain silent on realities of the changing times. The Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners Code of Conduct of 2011 (Texas Department of State Health Services, 2011), makes reference to sexual contact with clients as a violation, however, as contact is not clearly defined and because it has traditionally referred to a physical action, it may create some ambiguity if cyber-sex comes into play.  Such nebulousness presents a challenge for today’s leaders to enforce and it also presents an opportunity for them to take advantage of these gaping loopholes.

Today’s organizations have the benefit of a vast array of communication media; however, guidelines for ethical conduct are not always clearly communicated by leaders to their employees. When ethical values are properly communicated and supported, they can shape and guide employees in their ethical decision-making (Stevens, 2008). Values, behaviors, and management practices, including human resource management practices, are generally correlated (Florea, Cheung, & Herndon, 2013). Therefore, ethical conduct should be intertwined with employee performance appraisals. Most organizations have some sort of performance management or evaluation system that is linked to a reward system. If ethical conduct is linked to an organization’s rewards system then it could serve as an incentive to exercise ethical conduct. Additionally, it could enhance the organization’s human resource management practice by holding leaders and employees accountable for ethical conduct (Nielsen, 2011).

Today’s organizations have become quite diverse in various ways. Leaders must now understand people of different backgrounds, cultures, values, and perspectives (Lockwood, 2011). This poses a new dimension to leaders’ abilities to embrace their own values and ethics which may or may not be aligned with a code of conduct.  Different generations approach questions of integrity and ethics differently and as such, Lockwood (2011) asserts that a common area of tension among multi-generational workplaces focuses on work ethics and the definition that is given to it. Leaders and employees may have a different personal definition of what constitutes unethical behavior which conflicts with that which is contained in a code of conduct. For instance, those in the traditionalist generation may view the behavior of an employee from the Millenials generation as unethical, because their perspectives are often hinged on their traditional values. Values drive decision-making and as such, leaders may feel conflicted by their own personal values (Lockwood, 2011) and therefore, may become perplexed when called upon to make decisions that are ethics-related.  Therefore, when they are confronted with ethical-decision making, having a code of conduct for ease of reference can be a useful and valuable tool.

Excerpt from academic paper, 6/13

Florea, L., Cheung, Y.H., Herndon, N.C. (2013).  For all good reasons: Role of values in organizational sustainability. Journal of Business Ethics, 114, 383-409.

Lockwood, N. (2011). Business ethics: The role of culture and values for an ethical workplace.In J.S. Osland and M. Turner (Eds.), The organizational behavior reader (9th ed.), 202-211.

Nielsen, R.P. (2011). Think macro, act micro: Finance capitalism and ethics action methods. In J.S. Osland and M. Turner (Eds.), The organizational behavior reader (9th ed.), 186-201.

Stevens, B. (2008). Corporate ethical codes: Effective instruments for influencing behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 78, 601–609.

Texas Department of State Health Services. (2011, August 24). The Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners Code of Conduct. Retrieved from