Cupid in the cubicle

When it comes to romance in the workplace, Singapore companies are moving away from blanket bans and embracing more flexible approaches.

If you fly with a certain commercial airline headquartered in East Asia, you will be hard-pressed to spot a male flight attendant.

Hiring managers at the international airline have been deliberately recruiting only female cabin crew, possibly since as far back as 2004, HRM Asia understands.

Coupled with the industry’s high turnover rates among airline crew, it means male stewards are practically unheard of at the privately owned carrier.

The airline’s (overwhelmingly male) pilots and female stewards are also put up in separate hotels during layovers.

One employee, who spoke to HRM Asia on the condition of anonymity, says the measures are designed specifically to prevent sex scandals from brewing between male and female staff.

 “It’s a very sensitive problem so the manager never mentions this explicitly in our group meetings. But I have never seen any men working as flight crew on our planes,” the employee says. A spokesman for the airline declined to comment when contacted.

Leeway to love

Workplace romances do not appear to worry Singapore employers as much, however.

Of the companies that HRM Asia spoke to, the majority did not have formal policies or measures to regulate or restrict relationships between staff, although supervisor-subordinate romances are still heavily frowned upon.

Michelle Goh, founder of CompleteMe, says there is no need for a policy because the dating agency deliberately hires already-married staff. “We only employ married people who have ‘completed themselves’, so that it is in line with our values of helping others to complete themselves,” Goh says.

Lunch Actually, a matchmaking business, allows colleagues to date, although dating clients is out of bounds for its consultants.

Violet Lim, CEO of the Lunch Actually Group, says singles will often fall in love with a colleague, given they spend many hours together at work. But a transparent culture helps to ensure there are no business ramifications.

“Everyone in our firm is self-motivated and an ‘A’-player,” Lim says. “We believe they would not let romances affect their work.”

Sharing that sentiment is Carol Ho, HR manager at fast food giant KFC in Singapore. “The office remains one of the best places where people can find a potential mate who shares similar life goals and attitudes,” Ho says.

She notes further that working with a romantic partner can have perks for both employers and the staff involved. It is possible that it makes employees happier with their jobs, more motivated, and hence better performing, Ho says.

KFC, which employs 4,200 staff in Singapore, has no policy addressing workplace relationships. “We don’t monitor it closely, as we don’t take a heavy-handed approach on this issue,” Ho says.

Separating sweethearts

That being said, KFC does discourage dating between supervisors and their subordinates. “If such a relationship occurs, we will stipulate the subordinate be reassigned to another supervisor or department,” Ho says.

Transferring one party appears to be a favoured approach at many organisations, particularly for professional working environments.

Law firm Rajah & Tann, for example, does not have a written policy on relationships within its workforce but aims to keep any relationships above board. Many of the 600 staff and lawyers at the firm’s Singapore office, especially the younger lawyers, could be dating or married to colleagues, but still remain professional at work, says Koay Saw Lean, Director of HR at Rajah & Tann Singapore.

“We don’t stop anyone from having a romance. After all, the government is also encouraging people to get married and start a family,” Koay says.

However, a supervisor-subordinate romance will see one of the staff moved to another department. “We won’t discourage the relationship, but they definitely cannot work together because it’s not fair when it comes to assessing performance,” Koay says.

Ornamental fish service provider Qian Hu goes one step further. It will transfer one party to a different department, even if they are peers working in the same area.

Nonetheless, CEO Kenny Yap says workplace relationships have not been much of a challenge for the listed company. In the past 16 years, he says Qian Hu has known of only four cases of relationships within its headcount. It currently employs around 130 workers in Singapore.

“People are free to fall in love,” Yap says.

Public sector employees in Singapore do not face any restrictions on dating their colleagues per se. But Ng Li Sa, Director of the Public Service Commission Secretariat says both parties are required to formally declare the relationship.

The relevant superior will then assess if there is any potential conflict of interest. “If necessary, arrangements can be made for one of them to be deployed to another department or agency,” Ng says.

Flirting with trouble

While most employers acknowledge they cannot control exactly how and where Cupid’s arrow strikes, there are some genuine issues that can involve the business itself. “Some relationships can spell disaster for a workplace,” says Ho from KFC Singapore. These include extramarital affairs, as well as relationships between a boss and an underling. Ho says these types of often-hushed-up romances can disrupt an office, harm teamwork, and lower morale.

Extra-marital affairs, for example, can go against the ethical values of some colleagues. Some may also be uncomfortable observing public displays of affection.

Complaints of favouritism can also result if a supervisor is in a relationship with a direct subordinate, she points out.

Workplace relationships can also haunt an employer long after they have ended. If bitterness results from a nasty breakup, the couple may feud and force coworkers to take sides.

At Rajah & Tann, employees have the option of confiding in the law firm’s ombudsman, including for personal issues. “They can voice their concerns either to HR or to our ombudsman, who’s a senior partner and a very good coach, and it will all be confidential,” Koay says.

In the same vein, Lunch Actually encourages its associates to be open and speak to their managers about breakups and other personal challenges. Some employees have even asked for – and received – time off after a breakup. “We believe our associates need to be emotionally well to be able to perform at their work,” Lim says.

Dangerous liaisons

Workplace relationships also come with a minefield of potential legal risks.

One person’s romantic gestures can be interpreted as inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment.

If former flames clash, the breakup could lead to allegations of harassment, discrimination and unfair practices, especially if a supervisor and a subordinate are involved.

“Even if the relationship was consensual, you always run the risk of the subordinate claiming they felt pressured to continue the relationship out of fear of losing their job,” Ho cautions.

There can also be appearances of favouritism when it comes to work assignments, performance appraisals, and promotion opportunities, says Jenny Tsin, Partner and Joint Head of the Employment Practice at law firm WongPartnership.

Harassment allegations can have legal consequences for both the employee and the employer.

Employees can be exposed to the Penal Code and the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. Also applicable may be the Protection from Harassment Act, which says even non-physical actions such as stalking can be considered harassment.

Employers who turn a blind eye could find themselves liable for the actions of their staff, Tsin says. They could also be found in breach of their implied duty of trust and confidence, or even the Workplace Health and Safety Act.

Companies that lack a formal policy on workplace relationships usually rely on their rules on harassment.

One example is KFC, which has policies on anti-harassment and discrimination, as well as grievance policy and procedures. It is stated clearly that if a KFC employee is found guilty of sexual harassment, they will be dismissed.

The fast food chain takes strong action to prevent office relationships from engendering favouritism or any kind of hostile work environment, Ho says.

“If these problems arise, we’ll intervene to halt the suspected violation immediately. We will investigate the circumstances thoroughly and in an unbiased manner, and then penalise guilty perpetrators according to the pre-established guidelines,” she adds.

Qian Hu has a whistleblowing system in place for harassment. “One of our independent directors oversees that system, so if there’s any (suspected) sexual harassment, employees can inform that director,” Yap says.

Tsin says there are several strategies that can reduce the risk for employers and their HR teams. These include developing a harassment prevention policy which provides clear avenues for recourse and assistance, and conducting educational talks and training seminars for staff.

“In particular, steps should be taken to ensure that the HR managers, line managers and supervisors are adequately trained to conduct the grievance handling process and conflict management,” Tsin says.

A clear harassment reporting line, which ensures whistleblowers are not penalised, and clear response procedures are also important.

“It’s crucial that the management makes a clear position statement on zero tolerance for harassment,” Tsin says.

Expert recommendations

Lim from Lunch Actually believes workplace romances can work out well when there are proper policies to manage them, and encourages companies to take a more open approach.

“With people getting married later in life and their social circles shrinking, I believe more people are becoming open to workplace relationships if they meet the right person,” she says.

In turn, employees should also be open and honest with HR or a manager so that they can “work together to arrive at a conclusion that is fair for all parties”, she advises.

WongPartnership’s Tsin recommends all companies to have a formal policy on internal relationships to reduce the associated legal risk.

However, she appreciates that some employers may not want to be seen as too draconian or invasive when it comes to employees’ personal lives.

 “Given that such policies are not common in Singapore, an employer who adopts them may fear that its employer brand is affected.”

Building a relationships policy?

Employment law specialist Jenny Tsin from law firm WongPartnership advises HR that a formal policy on workplace relationships should:

  • Stipulate what is permitted, and what is prohibited between employees
  • State the consequences of the romance. For example, one party may have to transfer departments
  • Require disclosure so that employers can monitor and manage relationships, including managing the sentiments of other employees
  • Set out guidelines on expected behaviour. For example, staff may be requested to refrain from touching, kissing, or other public displays of affection

If such a policy is implemented, employers should ensure consistency in its application and that it is not overly-intrusive, Tsin says.

 

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