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  • November 8, 2019

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A recent news report shares how the McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired because of his ‘consensual relationship’ with an employee. The Board acted swiftly to ensure transparency. Closer home, in India, the incidents that surrounded Phaneesh Murthy’s removal first from Infosys and then iGATE are in a similar vein. At iGATE, Mr Murthy was believed to be in a consensual relationship with his subordinate and that was a clear violation of their company policy.

These actions by the Board and organizations are commendable in that they ensure that the companies follow the same policy guidelines for all employees, including the CEO. However, this incident throws light on a very serious challenge for companies. While there has been immense focus on designing an anti-harassment policy, encouraging reportage of harassment related incidents at the workplace and defining the corrective action, very few companies have proactively addressed the issue of ‘consensual relationship’.

From an ethical standpoint, this is not simply about relationship between two consenting adults who work together. Its implications are far-reaching and its long-term impact can be devastating for companies that intend to create bias-free workplaces.

What are some things that organizations need to introspect about, particularly in India, while assessing this incident?

  1. Lack of a coherent and well-defined relationship policy There are very few organizations that have clearly articulated such a policy and how employees might face repercussions incase it is not followed. We at KelpHR, strongly recommends that a relationship policy should be in place for all organizations to remove any form of ambiguity about how such situations will be managed. Relationship policy should address not just romantic relationship, but any close friend/family relations.


  1. Absence of understanding that it can create bias Many organizations might hesitate to create such policies because they might believe this to be a personal issue. However, such a relationship has the potential to create forms of favouritism or biases by managers, thus resulting in hostile environment for the other team members. This understanding and awareness is crucial for companies since that bias will then lead to unfair or inequitable work practices.


  1. Loss of high potential talent This can happen in two ways in such situations. Employees who are treated unfairly due to a consensual relationship between two other employees may choose to leave the company. Apart from that, in the event that the relationship breaks down or ends, it is likely to create an environment of awkwardness for both the individuals involved. In order to avoid that, a good employee might exit the firm because he or she has made the mistake of being in such a relationship at work.

Increasingly the market is becoming more diverse and complex. The same change is reflecting in our organizations. Employees are also spending a lot more time at work and hence with each other. Therefore the likelihood of such relationships is higher. And in that scenario organizations need to be prepared to manage such situations by anticipating them proactively.

It is also critical to evaluate why only one party in the personal relationship, that is the manager gets fired in such instances and the subordinates. One major reason for the same could be the fact that the organization suspects a quid pro quo angle to the situation wherein the subordinate might have entered the relationship because of the fear of losing their job. The powerful role that the manager plays in their career within the company could be the driving factor for the subordinate to agree to this kind of request.

In summary, it is important for managers to understand that there cannot be any form of relationship (also known as favoritism) with their subordinates. In the likelihood of managers falling in a personal relationship with a subordinate, it is important for either the manager or the subordinate to move to a different project/reporting tree entirely.

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