The impression one might receive from reading many of the most popular books on leadership or management is that these activities take place in a vacuum. “When situation X occurs, try doing Y. If that’s not successful, consider doing Z as a fallback solution.” It sounds very systematic, almost formulaic—and utterly unlike what we actually experience as academic leaders. Perhaps the single most appropriate way to describe much of the work administrators do in higher education today is “messy.” Choosing between two equally deserving candidates for limited research funding is messy. Deciding not to renew a probationary faculty member’s contract is messy. Resolving the endless quarrels and conflicts that seem to afflict nearly every program we supervise is messy. And all those situations become infinitely messier when you approach them weighed down with the baggage of personal relationships.
The baggage we bring to work with us can take a variety of forms. It could occur because we applied for our positions as internal candidates and suddenly find ourselves as bosses of the very people who only a short time ago we regarded as close friends. It could occur because we find ourselves in charge of a department or college in which a current or former mentor, romantic partner, or spouse works. It could occur because we develop a special affinity for someone who reports to us—or to whom we report—and we need to set aside those personal feelings when it comes to making a decision. In all too many cases, baggage places us in a lose-lose situation. If you decide in favor of your friend/lover/mentor, you’ll be accused of playing favorites. If you make a decision to that person’s detriment, the personal relationship could easily be strained.
The textbook answer to these sorts of problems is not to get into these predicaments in the first place. Never date someone at work. Keep all working relationships professional. And never confuse support for your ideas with friendship for you; the two may indeed go together, but that outcome can’t be guaranteed. But this textbook answer doesn’t really take into account the environment we work in as academic administrators. Intelligent, well-educated professionals tend to be attracted to other intelligent, well-educated professionals, whether as friends or romantic partners. In many parts of the country, the college or university where you work may be the only place where you’re likely to meet people with a background and interests similar to yours. What are you supposed to do then? Give up any opportunity for a personal life because it’s messy? That’s not realistic.
The answer to these questions may be found in a maxim appearing twice in Tom Robbins’ novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: “If it’s sloppy, eat it over the sink.” (Robbins, 1990, p. 244) In other words, you don’t always avoid situations just because they’re going to be messy, but you go into them with your eyes open and with a backup plan in place (i.e., Robbins’ metaphorical sink) if all goes awry. The type of “sink” you use will depend on your specific situation and the rules of your institution, but here are a few thoughts to keep in mind.
Be scrupulous about following institutional policies. Some institutions require that amorous relations between a supervisor and someone in his or her line of report must be disclosed to the upper administration, the Office of Human Resources, or some other authority. Other institutions prohibit them entirely. Whatever rules your school has in place, be sure that you know them and follow them from the very beginning. You may believe that you’ll be discreet enough or that the relationship isn’t serious enough to be caught. That’s a dangerous way of thinking, and it could damage both your careers. Don’t place yourself in a position where you can’t insist that others follow guidelines because you haven’t done so yourself. Learn what the rules are and obey them.
Have a candid conversation with the other person. Make it clear from the beginning of the relationship that your friendship or romance is one thing; your professional responsibilities are another. It can be difficult to let a longtime friend know that you won’t always be able to support what he or she would like, but that your decisions are never intended to reflect the quality of your relationship, merely your best professional judgment. If the other person can’t accept this idea, it’s better to know it from the very beginning. In that case, the friendship or romance may not be one that’s worth preserving anyway. (For more on this issue, see the premium content for Buller, 2012, pp. 43-45.)
Develop a sort of informal “prenuptial agreement.” Decide in advance how you will handle things if the relationship doesn’t last or if there should be a serious rift, no matter whether it’s personal or professional in nature. While it is always difficult to begin a friendship or romantic relationship with a discussion about how it might end, that difficulty will simply have to be endured. After all, this is not an ordinary sort of relationship; it’s one with a supervisor, colleague, or employee, and that added layer of complexity brings with it extra responsibilities. As difficult as the conversation will be now, it will be many times more difficult if you wait until a problem actually occurs.
Be careful what you share. We tend to share a lot of work-related information, even gossip, with our friends and lovers. But remember: even though this individual has a personal relationship with you, he or she is also an employee of your college or university. Would you share that same piece of information with someone else who works in the same position if that person were not a friend or romantic partner? If the answer is no, you’d probably be better off not sharing it with this person either. And in this day of social media, sharing information has to include what you post on Facebook and other sites. Even if you restrict access to the narrowest possible circle, posting news makes it public, and you’ll be likely to regret it in the future.
Don’t let your feelings trump your common sense. It can be a great temptation to let relationships get in the way of logic, even when we don’t want them to. If a friend or romantic partner turns in a proposal that’s incomplete, we might give him or her the benefit of the doubt because we know what the person probably would have said in the omitted parts. Or perhaps we’ll be tempted to give him or her a chance to redo the work that we might not have offered anyone else. As difficult as it can be, you have to keep your personal life and your professional life separate. As soon as they begin to overlap, sound judgment tends to fail and serious problems arise.
Buller, J.L. (2012). The Essential Department Chair: A Comprehensive Desk Reference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Robbins, T. (1990). Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. New York, NY: Bantam Books.