Question for the hivemind: workplace policies and MYOB.

The students in my "Ethics in Science" course have, as usual, reminded me why I love teaching. (Impressively, they manage to do this while generating ever larger quantities of the stuff I don't love about teaching, written work that needs to be graded.) But, recently, they've given me some indications that my take on the world and theirs may differ in interesting ways.

For example, last week they discussed a case study in which a graduate student is trying to figure out what to do about his difficulties with his research in a lab where the most successful student is also romantically involved with the boss.

In the discussion, there was about the range of opinions you'd expect about the acceptability of this kind of relationship and its likely effects on the collegiality of the training environment.

But there was a certain flavor of response that really confused me. It boiled down to something like this: The boss and the fellow grad student are responsible adults who can date anyone they want. Get over it, get back to your research, and for goodness sake don't go blabbing about their relationship because if the department chair finds out about it, they could both get in big trouble, maybe even losing their jobs.

Am I wrong that there seems to be a contradiction here?

If the professor and his graduate student can get in official trouble, at the hands of the department chair, for their romantic involvement, doesn't that suggest that the relationship is, in the official work context, not OK?

Or, looking at it from the other direction, if such a romance is something that they and any of their lab members who happen to have discovered it need to keep on the down-low, doesn't this suggest that there is some problematic issue with the relationship? Otherwise, why is the secrecy necessary?

I'm thinking the crux of this response -- they can date if they want to, but no one with authority over them must know about it -- may be a presumption that workplace policies are unreasonably intrusive, especially when it comes to people's personal lives. Still, it strikes me that at least some workplace policies might exist for good reasons -- and that in some instances the personal lives of coworkers (and bosses) could have real impacts on the work environment.

Is "mind your own business" a reasonable policy here, official work policies be damned?

20 responses so far

  • becca says:

    How does the story change if the school is not in California and the couple is a same-sex couple?

  • Peter R. says:

    As I see it, this is a real ethical dilemma, with a no-win scenario of several bad alternatives:

    1. Report the relationship to the "boss," because this is disrupting the tenor of the group. The group might be dissolved because the behavior is against work policies and the boss could be sacked. This also tags you as a busybody.

    2. Not report it, meaning that you implicitly condone the relationship. This doesn't solve the problem of the group dynamics.

    3. Try to tell the couple that their relationship is inappropriate. This is also being a busybody, trying to control someone else's life, and may get you booted from the lab.

    What it tells me, perhaps, is that having an official policy on this doesn't actually help in a concrete situation. You are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

  • Peter R. says:

    Sorry, #1 should read report the relationship to he boss above the research director (chair, dean, etc)

  • Bashir says:

    Not when the two involved are direct supervisor and supervisee. My department seems to split the difference. Nothing is banned, however such a relationship, again only if involving a direct supervisor/e relationship, had to be reported to the dept head, in case any issues came up in the future.

  • power differentials people, power differentials!! if you really need to be "involved" get a different supervisor.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Becca brings up an issue to which I'm completely sympathetic -- that some relationships will be judged more OK than others on the basis of social biases that are completely orthogonal to workplace issues (like the power differential between the PI and the grad student in the relationship). Even if you think a presumption against same-sex partnering is stupid, it doesn't mean someone with power over you and your career won't act on that presumption to make your life hard.

    So, yeah, some workplace policies, whether official or unofficial, are going to suck because of how they overreach.

    But ... isn't the potential harm from the boss-sleeping-with-the-grad-student relationship exactly the reason there ought to be some workplace policies that set sensible limits on the exercise of our autonomy?

    It's not like a person can really enter a relationship with absolutely anyone she wants to if we just strip out the intrusive workplace policies. For one thing, I'd presume that there are limits set by whether that other person consents to be in a relationship with you.

    So, why is it such a stretch to say, if you want to be in a relationship with each other, one of you cannot be supervising the other? Is is just that love, like MRSA, has a habit of blooming in situations where the relationship of supervision is already in place (and that you need both of those incomes if you're going to go anywhere good on your dates)?

  • Ria says:

    I was in exactly this situation, as the outside graduate advisor was dating a fellow trainee in the lab. As a result, the advisor chose to cherry pick data from other projects to give to the trainee with whom he was sleeping (and later married). The solidity/type/direction of the romantic relationship between the advisor and advisee is immaterial. The fact remains that in a power differential situation like this, ScientistMother is exactly right. Get a new advisor for the trainee. Otherwise, others in the group will at best be uncomfortable, and at worst be subjected to various forms of unethical and unprofessional abuse (data stealing, unfair favoritism and assignment of duties, unfair authorship, etc, etc) as the advisor tries to remain on the good side of their 'sweetie'.

    Only someone who has clearly not considered the situation carefully could think that it would be ethical to hide such a relationship because "people can date anyone they want". Please. I'm pretty sure that every ethical school of thought from natural law to utilitarianism would be consistent on this one.

  • JIA says:

    I don't know the age and work histories of your students, but is this possibly related to lack of real-world job experience on their part? I remember being in highschool (I'm 39 now) and there was definitely a sense of "I know best about who should date, the authority figures around me just don't understand" if someone criticized my choice of partner. But 20 years later, I see how power structures, gender relationships, group dynamics, etc come into play. I've taken umpteen hours of required training on "preventing harrassment in the workplace" and so forth. So I now see very good reasons why direct supervisors should not be dating direct reports, all the more so in a professor-student situation where the power ratios are SO skewed.

    I wonder how your students will feel 20 years post-high school? Or is this a true generational shift in attitude, and I am just reflecting my generation?

  • becca says:

    Part of my point was, 'needing' secrecy does not imply there *is* something wrong with the relationship, so much as there is something *perceived* to be wrong with the relationship.
    To put it baldly, I've actually had very few relationships that weren't objectionable by someone's standards. My first serious relationship involved illegal sex (i.e. statutory rape; I was 16 years old, my boyfriend was 21).
    I've been on the other side too, in a workplace context. I was suspended without pay for having a relationship with someone I was in a position of 'authority' over (note- I was not his direct supervisor, and the authority aspect was not really comparable to traditional workplaces).

    Relationships are intrinsically complicated and somewhat emotionally risky. Power differentials are real, but they do not always play out the way you would expect. Policies are, at best, an imperfect way of dealing with these issues.
    In the case of a grad student and a supervisor, finding a new supervisor is the logical solution- but I'm not sure it's always the best one.
    If the policy exists for a good reason, but following it would ruin someone's life while not following it would result in no harm, can you justify 'reporting things to the authorities'?

  • Janne says:

    The responses from your students illustrate why the workplace policy is misguided: it doesn't actually stop people from getting it on; it just pushes it out of sight, and out of control.

    A better policy would likely be something along the lines of "date anybody you want, but tell the department if it's somebody in the same workplace. Then we'll openly determine if or when either of you need to recuse yourself so there's no suspicion of unfair advantage being taken."

  • ecogeofemme says:

    Janne makes a good point.

    I think it can feel uncomfortable even if the boss is just good friends with one employee (even if they are not sleeping together) and not the others. Even if everything is totally fine, it can still smack of unfairness to the non-friend employees.

  • Karen says:

    Working not in a lab but in private-sector engineering, I've encountered more than one boss-subordinate relationship. In all cases, the relationship was known to management who didn't want to deal with it. Also, in all cases, the subordinate in the relationship (always a woman) lost all integrity in other people's eyes, though that didn't seem to be a problem for the boss.

    Having abandoned engineering and gone back to school in a science field, I'm well aware of the derogatory whispers when professors have dated students; but now it's the reputation of the (male) professors being questioned. Interesting.

  • Rob Knoo says:

    Dr Becca makes a great point. Mindless following of policies leads, for example, to the "zero toldrance" madness we see in US high schools around drugs. Even if policies have good reasons behind them, there are times tbey should be allowed to be violated-- and for that to really work, sometimes it means those in autbority can't find out.

  • The adviser and student may be "responsible adults", but as SM brings up, this does nothing to diminish the power differential. Not only does this situation have the potential to affect other people in the lab because of favoritism, it further skews a power imbalance. For the student in the relationship, s/he could encounter some serious professional backlash if the relationship takes a bad turn.

  • drugmonkey says:

    This idea that you just can't help who you fall in love with is utter nonsense hogwash. I totally support these policies because male Profs and subordinate women students have shown over and over that they cause trouble for all around them. It's a frigging *workplace*. keep your pants on....

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    This idea that you just can’t help who you fall in love with is utter nonsense hogwash.

    I don't know about falling in love, but whether one acts on whatever feelings one has seems like it should be within one's powers. (People who cannot control whether and how they act on such feelings probably ought to restrict themselves to circumstances where they can't hurt the rest of us.)

    So, for example, if I were to develop a mad crush on someone in my research group, it would only be a problem to the extent that it influenced my behavior (say, so that I'm spending grant money to bring my grad student/paramour with me to professional meetings while leaving my other grad students back in the lab, or emailing my beloved every 15 minutes instead of getting down to the work of research, or what have you). If it just stayed in my head and my heart, it shouldn't impact the dynamics of the workplace. Maybe it requires extra effort on my part to keep the crush in my head and my heart, but them's the breaks. Right? It's behavior, not feelings, that we're concerned with, yes?

    Or do the feelings themselves have the potential to cause real problems?

    Another thing:

    I take it that we don't always need explicit rules against behavior X to recognize that behavior X is a really, really bad idea (or, at least, a really, really risky course of action whose potential bad consequences can mess you or others up). When there is an explicit rule, is it functioning primarily as a signpost for those really bad behaviors (so you recognize that they are dangerous), or to provide a formal structure for dealing with the folks who indulge in them despite their potential to mess things up?

  • FrauTech says:

    Your students might be thinking more about the consequences of what they should do rather than the consequences of the relationship. A lot of the comments here deal with the unfair power relationship and how nasty that is for everyone in the relationship AND in the group. But the world is not a "fair" place.

    The students are probably realistic that pointing out this relationship to the higher ups would be pretty pointless. In this case the grad student is supposedly a very good one. If there was a case where the grad student was benefitting unfairly from the relationship, they might have a stronger ethical case for reporting it. But otherwise you don't know whether the dean has already decided to turn a blind eye and you as the complainee will now be shifted away to some dark corner where you can't complain.

    That's been my experience with a lot of ethical dilemmas like this. Karen seems to have the same industry experience as me, the subordinate female always loses credibility and suffers. Management turns a blind eye to whatever playboy antics their supervisors get up to. Anyone who complains will be seen as a troublemaker and gotten rid of in one way or another. I'd see the only ethical responsibility would be to speak to the woman if she is a friend and might take advice that the relationship is bad for her and bad for her career. That she should leave/transfer if she's so certain she wants to stay in the relationship. But beyond that I don't see any other real obligations.

  • becca says:

    Of course feelings themselves create real problems. Heck, the *perception* of feelings can create real problems.

    @drugmonkey citation please? there's anecdotes galore on this, on both sides.

  • Not Michelle says:

    I have been in this exact situation. My advisor is married to one of his former graduate students, but their relationship began when she was an undergraduate in his lab. My fellow labmates and I had intuited that there was something going on when they both started wearing rings out of the blue at the same time, while she was still a graduate student. It made all of us REALLY uncomfortable, but they kept it a secret from us (they still have never come out and said anything to the rest of us about their relationship, they act like it doesn't exist) and we didn't have any proof so we couldn't say anything to the department head. I only just got positive confirmation that they are married (from another ex-graduate student in our lab who says that the girl confided in him once about the relationship years ago), but since she has graduated it is a moot point by now. However she did receive preferential treatment (getting RAs when other people were forced to TA, etc, and definitely not due to merit) so some of us are quite pissed off about it, but what can you do?

  • E. Brown says:

    Reading through responses...I think your students are reflecting their age:
    - have been on the receiving end of critique about who they date (typically from older people)
    - have perhaps developed a working hypothesis that 'anything goes, but if it's in the least bit socially suspect (ie. big age difference, dating a married/divorced person) keep it quiet and save yourself some grief'.
    - not yet gained enough workplace experience where they could observe why such policies might be in place, ie. to prevent abuses of power, to prevent favouritism.
    - not yet enough social experience to see the systemic problems, but only see each pairing as romantic individuals, with whom they may sympathise; for undergrads(?) there may be a mystique to dating a significantly older person, man or woman.

    I think the pragmatic approaches (not forbidding behaviour, just keeping superiors informed) are the most enforceable.