There are times when the trade press – and its new, shiny digital equivalent – feels a little like the bad side of local newspapers. Just as your local newspaper will dazzle you with headlines like “TV Star visits City” – and follow them with articles about a supporting part player in a soap driving down the bypass on the way to the chippie – so any annual or topical event will trigger an article somewhere that somehow finds relevance to the Exciting World of Widgets!!! (You can blame Google, by the way: sprinkling your output with a dusting of passingly popular terms is a technique for boosting website visits. Just not necessarily return visits. If you’re competing in the economy of attention, please acquaint yourself with the ground rules.)
So, just as we saw with Christmas, so it is with the most personal, intimate and passionate celebration of the year. No, not the X-Factor final: Valentine’s Day. OK, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea: singletons, the newly separated, those who resent being over-charged for chocolate or a fluffy pink puppy/bunny/traffic warden costume – and especially those freshly dumped – get a little resentful about the whole shebang. Having our emotions manipulated for the commercial gain of others who think we’re not showing enough commitment goes against the grain of some people – despite which the Valentine’s Card is a ubiquitous part of the annual calendar. (And – please note – despite which there are some equally ham-fisted attempts at employee engagement going on in the world: if you want to influence our emotions for fiscal gain, some of us expect more than a tacky card and a sprinkle of gold heart confetti (although that’s not the worst idea out there …)
I receive numerous email updates, RSS feeds and the like from across the world of HR. Having managed, despite all legal advice to the contrary, to enjoy the festive season, one of the ones I received this week was distinctly depressing. It was bad enough that “Heartbreak for HR when cupid strikes” was the lead item in a newsletter (and its inbox subject line). Timing it to arrive on February 15th somehow made it worse. Note to HR: feedback is supposedly to be timely – banning something the day after its big annual moment isn’t just ineffectual, it makes you look reactive rather than pro-active. Fair enough, office affairs and relationships can lead to all sorts of problems – favouritism, jealousy, embarrassment and awkwardness for the by-standers.
The article in question does contain a fair bit of common sense, although there’s an undertone of egg-sucking lessons that made me wonder if it wasn’t being published too early for Easter rather than too late for Valentine’s Day. Organisations should be alert to favouritism or unfair discrimination for whatever reason that is causing it: two people bumping more than fists isn’t the only cause. As its author points out, “the most sensible way to deal with office romances is to have a clear policy in place before any cases arise.” But please also scroll back a couple of paragraphs and remind yourself that the author is an employment lawyer: they are writing about love in the workplace as there is money to be made of it happening, and out of HR folk feeling like they can’t possibly cope with one of the world’s most universal emotions. Is that better or worse than overcharging for fluffy bunnies and vanilla-scented heated socks with hearts on them? I guess it depends when you were last cuddled or warmed up by a lawyer … In the meantime, TMRZoo published a (more timely) survey conducted in the US late in 2010 that showed that 40% of Workforce Admit To Office Romances. (Given we spend such a large percentage of our lives at work, this really shouldn’t be a surprise: we don’t stop being either attracted or attractive because we’re in Building A rather than Building B. Well, most of us don’t anyway.)
The article’s other undertone is the one that annoyed me: that the role of HR in organisations is to stamp things out. Celebrating at the end of the year is one thing (ok, we can celebrate in our time, but pretending the biggest festival event of the social calendar isn’t happening is deeply odd behaviour), but love and romance. It’s tempting to suggest that, next Valentine’s Year, we should encourage employees should all send their HR Managers a beautifully wrapped pair of passion-killers – the big green gym-knickers of legend. Particularly fetching for the male HR Manager, don’t you think?
Most places I’ve ever worked – and I was going to say “I’ve been around a fair bit”, but I guess that might kill the mood – Valentine’s Day has passed pretty much without event. Sometimes a bouquet turns up from a partner (and the recipient blushes furiously while actually being rather flattered), or a card or two; sometimes co-workers offer advice to the young singleton embarking on their first Valentine’s dinner date. (Elbows off the table; no ribs, chips or food that comes in cardboard buckets; try to get their name right …) Mostly, it’s just part of life: if you’re in an office where colleagues are offended by someone finding personal happiness rather than pleased for them, it probably isn’t the day that’s the problem. And a memo from HR – even if it arrived a day late – telling us to ignore the whole thing, focus on prioritising aligning our development opportunities with business priorities and always keep our knees together would be a little like being a small child being sternly told not to point and laugh at the fat lady. You don’t change the world by writing memos about it. (Nor, to be honest, by reading them.)
I was kind of glad to find a few other bloggers who seemed to have a little more emotional maturity about the whole thing. HR Schoolhouse’s Simple Rules for Valentine’s Day at the Office seemed entirely sensible: they read like they came from the keyboard of someone who realised everyone was human and that, providing there was some basic decorum, their humanity was both unavoidable and acceptable. Amy Letke’s piece for the Integrity HR Human Resources Blog, Is It Time to Reconsider Your Interoffice Romance Policy?, included the worrying questions “What polices do you have in place in your organization? Do you allow the romances?” before recovering its maturity to accept that they happen, and most people can manage to be adults about it if there are some ground rules about expectations and respect. Susan Heathfield made the intelligent point that emotional range matters – in marriages and in workplaces – and that valuing and respecting each other matters all round: Valentine’s Day for her is about “an opportunity to value and respect your family, friends, and coworkers”. HR Ringleader chose to be tangential and write about tattoos. The HR Director put the vanilla-scented heated sock on the other foot and kicked back, pointing out that:
In the run up to Valentine’s Day, a poll of 2,000 people by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) explored how a poor work-life balance can drive a wedge between you and your partner. Of the 29 per cent who said they had been in a relationship adversely affected by a poor work-life balance, the two main problems were long working hours and high workloads.”
(That reference to passionkillers earlier wasn’t entirely a joke.)
The last of these isn’t attributed, so I can’t be sure, but all the pieces in the last paragraph were also, I notice, penned by women. So I’m glad to note that the chaps haven’t let all emotion by-pass them. (Perhaps they heard about the march at The University of Texas with the t-shirt slogan: “This Valentine’s Day, Fall in Love with Equality”?) David Fairhurst took the opportunity in The HR Magazine to express the opinion that “We’d all benefit if the spirit of Valentine’s Day was adopted in our business relationships”, and emphasised the beneficial potential of anonymous gift-giving and the power of unconditional goodwill. It was a point picked up by Dr John Philpott’s blog at People Management, where he made the following point:
Do we really want to reinforce the lack of trust in senior management and intense job insecurity that still pervades so many British workplaces? The UK doesn’t need an employer’s charter but a ‘workplace charter’ that seeks to foster engagement rather than further instil a damaging sense of ‘them and us’. The employment relations scene in 2011 is likely to be difficult enough without measures that seek to turn back the clock to 1981. Perhaps Valentine’s Day would have been a good time for the government to reach out to workers as well as bosses.”
So, a red rose and glass of pink champagne for David, John and all the ladies, and a pair of green gym knickers in a heart-shaped box for the employment lawyers. The accompanying card will, of course, be anonymous, but a personal development goal seems appropriate. How about: “By the end of next February, I will have at least one occasion on which I unexpectedly needed a vase suitable for a single stem. I will appreciate the occasion when it arises, and will not write a memo about it”?