As with talking about any romantic relationship in the workplace, the relevance of polyamory at work depends on the work setting. Temporary workers and those whose workplaces tend to maintain a certain emotional distance or emphasize privacy probably do not talk about their relationships at work very much at all, regardless of what kind of relationships they have. It becomes more of an issue when coworkers talk about their personal lives at work. From tales of a wild night on the town with the bachelorette party to vacation photos or baby showers, mainstream heterosexuals talk about their relationships and the events associated with them incessantly. It is what you do when something is a big part of your life. For people whose relationships are not so mainstream, talking (or not talking) about relationships can take on a different level of risk.
Why is it a problem?
Having an unconventional relationship is not generally a problem for the many people who lead happily polyamorous lives. The much larger problem is others’ reactions to their relationships, and planning for potential reactions and managing them once they have happened can be exhausting for polyamorous people who come out to others. Polyamory can be a problem at work because of the costs that come with hiding and the potential to experience employment-based discrimination.
Costs of Hiding
Hiding who you are – sexually, relationally, religiously, gender identity, or any other deep element of the self — takes a significant toll. Keeping silent when everyone else is discussing their weekends with their date/spouse/kids feels terrible and erasing, and it can also make you seem stuck up or arrogant to coworkers who do not understand your reticence. Failing to make or losing social contacts at work can not feel lonely and isolating, but can also cost opportunities for advancement that come with informal social alliances in the workplace.
Source of Discrimination
In virtually every state, municipality, city, and strip mall, employers can legally discriminate against people with unconventional sexual or romantic relationships. Civil rights lawyers have carved out some limited protections for gays and lesbians from laws prohibiting gender discrimination, because employers discriminate against same-sex partners based on their partners’ gender. As of now, consensual non-monogamy, kink, and other forms of unconventional relationships have no legal protections. People have been fired or prevented from receiving business licenses for being polyamorous, kinky, or even just gay.
Although most (all?) employers can legally fire someone for being polyamorous, some employers even encode their requirements for what they consider to be appropriate relationships in morality clauses in employment contracts. Morality clauses allow employers to “set moral standards, ethical expectations, and consequences for conduct that the employer determines to be disreputable.” When employees under these contracts – from lawyers to teachers, sports stars to Chik Fil A drive-through workers — act “disreputably,” they can be dismissed. In my research, I have spoken with people as diverse as church employees, call center workers, and IT support people for large firms who have all lost their jobs when their employers became aware of their polyamorous relationships.
Deciding if they are going to come out or not, and to whom, when, and how to manage the information afterwards can be tremendously complex for polyamorous people. Polyamorous people generally come out to their loved ones and significant others first, and coming out at work usually happens much later (unless some event pulls them out of the closet). Tamara Pincus, co-author (with Rebecca Hiles) of Its Called Polyamory: Coming Out About Your NonMonogamous Relationships, serves polyamorous clients as part of her therapy practice. When those clients consider coming out to someone at work, Pincus advises them to:
Think carefully about whether you have a back-up plan in case coming out at work doesn’t go well. Don’t treat being polyamorous as something that you’re ashamed of. Instead, bring up partners in contexts where others are also talking about their partners and, if/when people become aware that you have more than one, be prepared to calmly answer questions without getting defensive.