Q: I work at a federal agency. We have a nondiscrimination policy against homosexual people. Most people don't have a problem with this. But a question has come up about a couple who have a special relationship and who have moved back and forth around the country together. Recently, one of the couple was promoted, and she selected the other as her employee, which was a promotion. That has left management in a quandary about the situation. Morale has declined rapidly as other employees feel favoritism has occurred. Married couples who are heterosexual or other workers with a familial relationship are not allowed to enter into this supervisor-employee relationship. It doesn't seem fair that it is permitted with this relationship.

A: There is widespread consensus that romantic relationships between bosses and subordinates aren't good business practice because, as in this case, they can stir allegations of favoritism, hurt morale and productivity, and even lead to sexual harassment lawsuits if they later go awry. An American Management Association survey in 1994 found that three-quarters of corporate personnel officials said they disapproved of relationships between higher-ranking and lower-ranking employees. But because companies are cautious about treading into the area of personal relationships, only about 6 percent of the firms had policies banning them.

The rules are more clear-cut with married couples. In the federal government, there are specific nepotism rules that forbid public officials from hiring, promoting or even offering special training opportunities to a wide array of legal relations, including spouses, fathers, mothers, children, cousins, in-laws and step-family members, according to the Office of Personnel Management, the government agency that oversees personnel matters for many branches of the government.

But these rules do not apply to gay people, who cannot legally marry. Consequently, the OPM does not have any rules governing supervisors and subordinates in homosexual relationships, according to an OPM spokesman, who said he also believed it would be an awkward issue to raise at work without appearing to pry into people's personal lives.

The OPM is not unusual in not having rules addressing this issue, said Sue Meisinger, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria.

Still, she said, it showed poor judgment on the part of the supervisor to promote a person with whom she has had a relationship, and she also faulted upper management for not asking whether the promotion could raise questions of a conflict of interest.

But Meisinger cautioned that the couple's "special relationship" may not be a romantic one, and co-workers should not jump to conclusions; she noted that sometimes women in executive positions are rumored to be lesbians because of lingering discomfort about women in dominant administrative roles.

Q: A group of us have been working as tellers at the same branch location, all for more than four years. We like the workplace; it's close to home and not a bad commute. The customers are pleasant, and it's in a nice area.

Lately we've had a hard time hiring people. A few months ago, a 23-year-old woman was hired. She has only seven months' banking experience. We've learned that she is earning 50 cents an hour more than some of us, and only about 50 cents an hour less than her supervisor. We questioned our manager about this, and she said it was the new policy to pay more to attract applicants. It feels like a slap in the face to us. It also makes us feel as though we are not appreciated. Can you advise us on any reasonable action we can take regarding this situation?

A: This condition has a name: It's called salary compression, and it happens whenever there's a labor shortage that forces companies to pay more to recruit new workers.

Usually they just hope their other workers won't find out--but often they do. And then the other workers realize they may need to job-hop to get more money.

This situation has "created tremendous pressure on ordinary people to change jobs," said Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a career-planning specialist in Wilmette, Ill., who said many workers are experiencing extreme anxiety about whether to leave or stay at a job they otherwise like.

Some workers are going out and getting other offers, hoping their current employers will match the salary rate, she said. In many cases, employers are foolish not to do so because otherwise they will have to begin recruiting anew, probably at a higher rate of pay, to hire untrained workers who may not perform as well, Kennedy said. On the other hand, it's also risky for workers to shift jobs--they may not be happy with their new positions, she said.

In regions or occupational fields where unemployment is very low, some employers have begun doing regular salary surveys and boosting pay to prevailing market rates to avoid these problems.

In this case, according to Kennedy, the bank should consider raising workers' salaries to prevent losing them. She said that otherwise the bank may lose not just employees but customers as well if they should follow a beloved, helpful teller to a new bank.

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE WORKPLACE?

Got a tough workplace question? Trying to deal with difficult co-workers or handle a thorny management question? Is the work-family balance giving you vertigo? Want to be more effective on the job?

We'll take your questions, comments and concerns to workplace and management experts. We can't answer the letters personally, but we'll include many of your stories in upcoming columns and articles.

Write to workplace reporter Kirstin Downey Grimsley at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or send e-mail to downeyk@washpost.com. Please include your name, address and telephone numbers--although we won't publish your name without your permission.