Probably most seasoned HR practitioners have seen a fair share of office romances, but not often do you get to deal with sex at the workplace and its ramifications amongst staff.
I had such a problem posed to me by a distraught manager who had a riot on his hands from staff. Several of them had come in to the deserted office on a Saturday to do overtime, when they came across their married supervisor in the act of having sex on one of the desks with a ‘girlfriend’. Word spread like wildfire, and the branch manager was faced with a delegation on Monday morning from all the reportees of the shagging supervisor who now refused to work for him.
To understand the context, this was a small conservative community who knew the supervisor and his wife socially, and the majority female workforce decided collectively that if he could cheat on his wife, he did not deserve their respect as a supervisor. They all refused to report to him with immediate effect, and no one would work at that desk! Over to HR to solve.
The first solution to restoring normality was to remove the offending desk. No one in the building would accept it, despite the most hygienic of clean-ups, so it was ceremonially carried out of the building, and a less sinful one brought in to facilitate the workers re-entering the office. At least they were now back to work.
Before we got to finalising a charge, the errant supervisor himself called HR to volunteer a demotion to a vacancy at staff level within another department. This was a move from left field which was not anticipated, followed immediately by a call from the chief of the lynch mob to say that they found this quite acceptable. The reason for the staff finding a demotion a pragmatic solution was based on their perception that infidelity by a supervisor was not acceptable to them, because they needed to trust him but, if he were ‘one of us’, then it was fine because the trust imperative no longer existed!
It was pretty tough for anyone in HR to make sense of the value systems being applied here and, although the mob should never drive labour relations in the workplace, you cannot ignore it, particularly in a highly unionised setting. The branch manager was just looking for any outcome which would make his problem go away.
The outcome? The guy was transferred and voluntarily took the demotion to the other job. He retained his employment with a warning, and the staff went back to work without any qualms. The union didn’t utter a peep. Only the desk was banished for life, for its part in An Affair to Remember.
About the author
Gary Taylor has worked in HR for 25 years, in National Mutual of Australasia and Unilever, then as HR director at South Africa's largest health insurer Medscheme for 14 years, followed by three years at Wits University. Two years ago, he was appointed to start up HR for a new University in Saudi Arabia, where he is now director of the policy office