Principal Investigators Association

No. 120: Valentine Flowers for My Post-Doc: Am I Crossing the Line?

Reader Question:
My post-doc is now halfway through her second of two years in my lab. Candidly, I have developed romantic feelings towards her. But I have been careful not to reveal these openly so far, nor have they interfered with our professional work at the bench. However, Valentine’s Day has now rolled around, and I wonder if it would be inappropriate to at least present her with a dozen roses? Perhaps with a vague message on the card, like “In admiration of you and your work”?

Expert Comments: In today’s workplace, there are four overlapping issues here. In order:

1) The law
2) Your institution’s policies concerning boss/
    subordinate relationships
3) The potential impact on your management of
    the lab, and
4) The romantic interest itself.

Here’s how these play out:

1) Legally — It’s a bad idea. A grandiose gesture like sending flowers could invite a sexual-harassment lawsuit. Should she complain, there is now a legal burden on the employer (in your case, the institution) to react. The institution would have to investigate, and you could face disciplinary action ranging from a verbal/written warning to removal from your position to termination. Sexual-harassment law requires the company (or institution) to do something in response to complaints. If they do not, they risk facing legal action.

2) Institutional policy — Again, it’s a bad idea. Most organizations have policies against anyone in a supervisory position seeking to “date” anyone who reports to them. The supervisor/staff member relationship is considered so unbalanced in terms of power that institutions want to protect themselves against the legal complications.

3) Impact on lab management — It complicates things. Either way this works out, you are compromised as a manager. If the person responds to your attention, other employees may see you as playing favorites. If not, any adverse action you take toward her later on any lab issue (no matter how justified) can be seen as retaliation.

4) Finally, the romantic interest itself, the “issue of the heart.” You should already know that relationships of this type rarely work out or last. I met my husband this way — I hired him. It was years ago in a small, family-owned business, and there was no policy against fraternization. At the time, I was concerned that if anyone found out about it, the others in our department would think I was playing favorites, which is exactly what happened. I wound up leaving the organization.

There are just too many layers of “No” in what you suggest. I can’t recommend this gesture.

This article is taken from PIA´s Free eNewsletter “Science Pro Insider.”


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4 comments on “No. 120: Valentine Flowers for My Post-Doc: Am I Crossing the Line?

  1. Dear,
    there are “no borders” for love. There are so many no no no’s, best will be just wait until she is no longer your post-doc.
    Love which is meant to be will last!
    Good luck!

  2. Giving roses is not a vague gesture, whatever the card says. And the message you suggested is also not vague in any way. Resist the temptation for another 6 months, save a lot of grief for eveyone concerned….

  3. It is not a good idea while the postdoc is still within the institution. It is better to wait till she is out. If it is true love, she will end up returning as an independent, and not as a postdoc. Keeping up the professional attitude will keep both sides safe.

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