Denise Conroy was an executive for three decades, with 10 years as a CEO.She saw how mixing work with love can often lead to less-than-ideal outcomes. She has been called extreme for disallowing office romances, but she stands by her policy.
I am adamantly against romantic relationships between people who work together. I had a 30-year executive career and spent 10 of those years as a CEO. I lived and led by one simple rule: “Never get your sex where you get your checks.”
I never had an office romance, nor did I ever work with a spouse or partner. Work is fraught with enough personalities and political landmines without having to navigate romantic entanglements.
Office relationships are a cohesion killer
Romantic relationships in the office destroy cohesion, the magical quality that’s fueled by trust and transparency and drives positive business outcomes.
When I worked at HGTV as the chief marketing officer, married couples and romantic entanglements were rampant. Being located in Knoxville, Tennessee made recruiting difficult, as most media talent was in New York or Los Angeles. That could have been a reason HGTV hired a slew of married couples, to lure talent to their headquarters.
Early in my tenure at the network, a vice president in my newly inherited marketing group asked me to meet with her husband, a member of my creative team. She was convinced my predecessor hadn’t given her husband a fair shake.
The whole charade of having a wife ask for a meeting for her husband was beyond awkward.
When the meeting day came, the husband sauntered into my office like he owned the place and asked for a raise and promotion. He thought he deserved both (he didn’t) and knew full well he was leveraging his wife’s good standing.
Once I said no to both requests, the couple’s attitudes changed significantly. They complained and gossiped non-stop, fueling the grapevine with retaliatory venom. It negatively affected the morale of everyone around them. Their attitudes never recovered, and I eventually had to let both of them go.
Workplace romantic relationships can lead to keeping mediocre (and worse) talent
When HGTV hired couples, or “package deals” as some called them, the balance of talent was usually off. Invariably, one person was the superstar, and the other was a sidekick. Often, the only reason the sidekick had a job was to lure the superstar to the company.
In one instance, a programming superstar from a big market was lured to the network, and his husband was automatically given a role in another group. The superstar was a renowned performer. People referred to his spouse as “the office cheerleader,” reflecting his bubbly personality and vague role and contribution.
Everyone knew the spouse was only employed to mollify his superstar partner. Lots of people resented the situation, especially people who were under-resourced or those who had to lay off more capable people.
It was an all-around bad situation and a risky one from a personal finance perspective. As a married couple, do you really want to put all your household eggs in the same corporate basket?
Marriages and romantic relationships go sideways, and the fallout can be intense
Not all relationships last forever. Breakups tend to be like tornadoes, pulling everyone and everything into their vortex of misery — and people inevitably take sides.
Early in my career, I was an administrative assistant at a healthcare company. My boss led an influential function and was in a relationship with someone at his level who led another department. As the relationship was nearing its end, they would go into his office and scream at each other.
My desk was right outside, and I came to know every sordid detail of their relationship and its demise.
Once they finally broke up, the office grapevine skewered the woman. People painted her as a harlot and a climber, which killed her career trajectory. No one questioned my male boss’s involvement. In fact, my boss and some of the men on his team joked about the relationship like high school boys in a locker room.
It was a badge of honor for him and a scarlet letter for her.
This is common and unfair. When romantic work relationships fall apart, it’s usually the woman who’s harshly judged in the aftermath. Men get off scot-free and even use it as a sort of credibility builder.
Depending on how powerful someone becomes in an organization, they may hold a grudge against the person they were involved with and use their power against them. On the flip side, they might favor former partners.
Either way, the hint of harassment or favoritism is something no company needs, from a legal or moral perspective.
So, what’s a leader to do and not come off as anti-love?
I’m as much of a romantic as the next person, and I believe good business is about nurturing togetherness, cohesion, and managing the whole.
No one — or two — people are more important or bigger than that whole. It’s comprised of people who create value for shareholders and represent the livelihoods of countless families.
For that reason, I didn’t hire married couples as a package deal when I was a CEO. And while I understood the dynamics of people meeting in the workplace, I didn’t permit romantic relationships among coworkers.
My policy was full disclosure of the relationship. Once the relationship was disclosed, a clock started and one person had to seek employment elsewhere in a reasonable time period.
This signaled the kind of business I ran and what the actual values were instead of the performative ones most companies plaster all over their walls and website.
People told me I was extreme. Maybe. But I didn’t bring my rowdy, dysfunctional family relationships to work — employees deserve some semblance of peace and harmony in the workplace.
Denise Conroy is a three-time CEO and former Fortune 500 CMO. She advises, counsels, and guides women to reach the C-suite.