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Home Back Issues No. 64: Valentine Flowers for My Post-Doc: Am I Crossing the Line?

Feb 14

No. 64: Valentine Flowers for My Post-Doc: Am I Crossing the Line?

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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, Valentines 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"?

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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.

Expert comments by Betsy Walits , of the Law Office of Betsy Walits, Valparaiso, Ind.

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Comments (9)
written by xyz, February 07, 2011
It is never good to get involved with your coworkers,more so whom in the picking order below you. However, that should not mean that all human emotion should be off. Work flourish when there is a good working atmosphere of genuine respect, politeness and to some extend some friendly and expressed -nonsexual- affection. I believe giving some flowers or a bottle of good wine, humorousc card, etc,--- but not one or a dozen red roses or explicit cards-- are fine. I have done that frequently and had never a problem, just he opposite. If you are serious, talk to a colleague (and then explain it to her) to transfer her to a different lab before you get really involved.
written by abc, February 08, 2011
This is a really bad idea, members of your lab who report to you are OFF LIMITS, period. It could also be upsetting to her if her feelings are not the same as yours and you could jeopardize your good working relationship. No go on the flowers or anything else for that matter while she works for you!
Assistant Director
written by SmartgrlfromNC, February 08, 2011
Absolutely not! Not only is that professionally unethical in terms of the power imbalance between your position and hers, it is wrong to assume she would find flowers acceptable. You should get your emotions under control and recognize and respect her for the excellent postdoc that she is....not an object of your affection.
written by Chuck M., February 14, 2011
It is a very bad idea to consider a romance while the person works for you. Perhaps after the post-doc is over and there is no longer a working relationship then you can consider it.
written by David E. Harrison, February 14, 2011
Formally, it is indeed a bad idea. But in fact, I know many people (mostly but not all males) who met their spouses as students under them, and so far as I can see, they are at least as happy together as other couples. How else are dedicated researchers to meet potential spouses if we spend all our time in the lab?
The expert's Points 1-3 are, of course, correct, and if all you want is some sex, find another partner - your postdoc, or student, or secretary, etc is OUT.
But if your life's companion is this person, IF and only if you and your postdoc are really in love - and you would happily lose your job for this person - then legal issues are trivial. Even in this case, I would postpone any obvious public display of affection, such as flowers until AFter you are married - then bring on the flowers!
written by Foreigner, February 14, 2011
Why not to send these flowers anonymously to her home address? And 11, but not 12!
Look at a bigger picture
written by Victor, February 15, 2011
This is all correct, of course, but just for a moment look at it at a different angle. If (and only if) your feelings are serious, then isn't it pretty pathetic, to give up on your feelings, on your life maybe, because of the fear that a flood of lawsuits filed by your colleagues and even by your chosen one (about whom you are not really feeling secure either!) is going to sink your career? Now, look at the expert comments. Almost in every line, there is a tune that nobody would really care, but everybody will be compelled to act in response to complaints because of the fear of potential legal consequences, even if the complaints themselves were without merit. We all became chicken: we are afraid to deal with other people, at least without signing a thick bunch of all possible waivers; we are afraid to hike, to bike, to ski, to swim, just to enjoy sun and nature without overkill protections; we are afraid to drive, and eventually we are afraid just to live our lives. How and why, do you think, this happened?
written by girl, February 15, 2011
It's not wrong to fall care for others or feel affection towards another.
It is wrong to use your position to exploit another person.

These two light posts will hopefully lead you through any fog you may be experiencing.

There is no excuse for lack of self control.
Post-doc female
written by RootinForLuv, February 18, 2011
Why doesn't it occur to you reticient Galahads that SHE (the post doc student whose heart evrybody is ignoring)may actually be pining for Shy Prof to come out from his self-made love prison and finally say something. The fact that he would make his gesture on a widely acepted public holiday like Valentine's Day surely removes any connotation of secretive or tawdry. Even my kids at school give their teacher a Valentine, and she gives them one each.. Are they all perverts reportable to the sex police? Political correctness has run amuck once again in the science lab..

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