Many executives will have come across co-workers, who are in a relationship. This knowledge can vary from being a matter of mild interest to one of real discomfort. I had a boss once who was having an affair with their deputy in our small team. It was very uncomfortable most of the time, but also hilarious at others, especially when they tried comically to hide what everyone already knew. Most companies these days will have policies against relationships with subordinates, particularly as they could be construed as sexual harassment.
However, rules don’t guarantee compliance, especially in matters of the heart. So, as a non-executive, what do you do if you discover that there is a relationship at a company at board level or involving a board member?
Firstly look up the rules to establish the legal position. Is there a company rule that forbids or defines parameters for such relationships? The rules may well be different for relationships between co-workers as opposed to those between boss and subordinate.
The easiest thing for a non-exec is to ignore the situation. You may feel that you should ‘do something’ but if it doesn’t seem to be interfering with work and you don’t feel that it is exploitative, there may be plenty of other more important matters to worry about. Just keep an eye on it. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, the next step is to quietly mention it to the Chairman, and leave the ‘hot potato’ steaming nicely in their lap.
The most problematic relationship is often one a CEO and a senior executive. I have seem this a few times, and it is rarely a good thing. Inevitably other executives know about it, resent the special bond, and fear the pillow talk. This cannot, I think, be ignored. A non-exec would be wise to discuss it privately with the Chairman, and if they refuse to engage on it, raise it at a non-exec meeting. The very least you should aim for is that all non-execs are aware of the issue and can take it into account when they participate in board discussions and decisions.
If you feel that the relationship is exploitative, then you must raise it at board level. If the board declines to take any action, then you must decide whether to live with it or resign.
Beyond this, any non-exec has to apply their own discretion and judgement. How dysfunctional is the relationship to the company and its board? How concerned are the other non-execs? How much fuss do you want to make? There is no right answer here, but you should try to work out, all things considered, what is in the best long term interests of the company?
A final word on your due diligence when you join a board. When one Chairman asked me to lunch shortly after I joined the board, I assumed that he was being welcoming and that we could get to know each other a little better. In fact, he wanted to tell me that there was a relationship that I needed to know about. How kind of him to tell me a week after I had signed on. That taught me as much about the Chairman as it did about the participants.
I would recommend that in your final due diligence before being appointed as a non-exec, you ask the Chairman a direct question as to whether there is anything you should know about personal relationships in the senior management and the board. If you get an astonished denial, you can rest more easily. That’s what due diligence is for. But you might just find out something that could save you a lot of trouble later on.
- Relationship happen at work. They are not necessarily harmful.
- Check the company rules on relationships.
- You can ignore it, if it does no harm. If in doubt, consult the Chairman.
- If the Chairman doesn’t do anything, you can consult your fellow non-execs.
- If the relationship risks being exploitative, you should take action.
- Worth asking a question during your due diligence.