There is no better time to discuss workplace boundaries than in February … with Valentine’s Day and all that it represents. [Christmas parties with mistletow and alcoholic punch are a close second but I will leave that until next December].
Interestingly, whenever I discuss the importance of workplace “boundaries”, managers (and their staff) often assume that I am going to discuss sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, without question, has no place in the modern workplace. Cupid needs to be certain that his/her arrow is directed towards an employee who welcomes the overture and and finds it respectful. There is no “exclusion” from the prohibition on sexual harassment on Valentine’s Day or otherwise. This applies to management, front line staff, contractors, members of the public and otherwise.
In my experience, however, there is a far more prevalent issue involving ‘boundaries’ in today’s workplace. This involves the dynamic of management and supervisors be-friending certain members of their team. When this happens, the manager may be contributing to actual or perceived “preferential” or “differential” treatment towards that staff member – which can have a significant impact on the integrity of the team and the overall credibility of the manager.
Based upon recent conflict audits I have conducted, it is apparent that employees – at all levels and in many different industries – are vigilant in monitoring how they are treated by their manager as compared to others on their team. They commonly raise concerns about “special treatment” or “unequal treatment” in the workplace. As part of this, they will “call out” their supervisor for differential treatment, often informally through workplace gossip and criticism (of both the manager and the staff member) or formally, through grievances and human rights complaints.
Formal claims of “unequal treatment” can arise in a number of contexts including:
- Allegations of “discriminatory discipline” – in these circumstances, employees dispute their discipline or adverse feedback, not by denying that it took place, but by offering examples of similar misconduct by others who have received less or no criticism. They base the differential treatment on the other employee’s perceived or actual friendship with the manager.
- Claims of discriminatory discipline often are accompanied by claims of personal harassment. The employee asserts that the unjustified differential treatment is a form of harassment;
- Allegations of perceived or actual “conflict of interest” in decisions surrounding hiring and promotion of certain employees over others;
- Allegations (commonly raised during performance reviews and exit interviews) that the manager spends a disproportionate amount of time with one employee over the others, allowing that employee to “shine” while the others “falter” (or are “ignored” relatively speaking); and
- Allegations that a manager has failed to respond to employee concerns about another employee because of his/her friendship or association with that employee.
Significantly, the “preferred” relationship in question does not have to (and commonly does not) involve members of the opposite sex; nor do the allegations have to involve perceptions of a sexual relationship. In fact, these claims commonly arise because a manager is – or appears to be – friends with an employee on their team. They go golfing, see each other on weekends, spend holidays with each other’s families and have regular lunches or visits (in or out of the office). Simply put, the manager’s relationship with this employee is different – and is seen to be different – by others within the organization.
In a recent situation, employees were struggling with dysfunctional and disrespectful conduct by their supervisor. However, that supervisor reports to his close friend, the manager of the department. This relationship is a known fact in the organization (and disturbingly, predated and contributed to his hiring). The employees were reluctant to report their concerns to the manager because of this relationship. When they finally reported their issues, the manager dismissed their complaints finding that they were unfounded.
Because of this friendship, the manager’s assessment carried no weight with his team. It is quite likely that an adjudicator would have similar concerns in these circumstances.
In these circumstances, even if there is no actual bias, it is the “reasonable perception of bias” that triggers the concern on the part of others and causes the overall workplace dysfunction.
It is critical that managers and supervisors create and maintain a respectful distance from those who report to them. The closer one becomes with certain staff, the more distant he/she becomes with the others. It is important to engage with employees provided that this is done with all employees, not simply one’s favourites, and provided that the “engagement” is professional and work-related. Otherwise, an imbalance develops that often breeds resentment and jealousy amongst the staff, resulting in decreased morale and dysfunction.
So, if you are sharpening your arrow with a plan to engage in acts of kindness and attention this Valentine’s Day, focus on the team, not on one particular individual.
And next time you plan to head out for an adventure, ask yourself if inviting a staff member to accompany you is helping or hurting your overall efforts to build a culture of respect and inclusion amongst your team.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Please share (equally).