Workplace Romance in a #MeToo World

Posted by Jeff Pelliccio on Feb 12, 2018 9:00:00 AM

In ICS insights

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and that means love is in the air but has your office filtered the air for such feelings? Romance in the workplace is not uncommon. There are plenty of coworkers gossiping around the Keurig about last nights flirting at happy hour, and there are plenty more employees who are striking up the courage to ask their coworker to after-hours drinks. It’s natural to develop feelings for the people you spend the most time with during the day. However, is this changing due to the #MeToo movement? Have we declared war on office romance by stomping out the predators? Employers and employees must tread lightly going forward in a workplace romance.

What Companies Should Know

Workplace romance or sexual assault? Companies likely won’t know until it’s disclosed or reported. One thing is for sure; employers now dread becoming the latest exposé in the #MeToo movement.
What once was an issue confined to an office holiday party, is now an all year affair. This ambiguity leaves room for more employee error. Employers are rightfully anxious about what this means for the future of their business.
Does this #MeToo world put employers at a higher risk? Well, yes and no.
It places a higher importance on policing, but it doesn’t mean that this behavior is happening any more often than it has. If anything, it might encourage victims to come forward, or it could decrease the behavior by introducing a more negative reinforcement such as loss of job or reputation.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, organizations are cracking down on this issue with preventative measures. While enforcing these standards is important, companies must first make the policies known and understood by all.
The company should make it known that any incident is taken seriously and followed up with a thorough investigation. All employees must be aware of the disciplinary actions that follow an infraction such as dismissal from employment and ensure that those that come forward with complaints will be treated with respect and confidence. Reiterate that there will be no victimization for speaking up.
Don’t just stick to the handbook and powerpoint presentations. Foster an environment where employees can speak up safely and feel supported. If victims feel empowered, the reports of sexual harassment may climb at first. If that’s the case, don’t be alarmed. It means you’re moving towards a future where those incidents will decline. By denormalizing the action, you are creating a safer environment with more observant employees.
If your organization is dealing with sexual assault allegations, here are some things you can do to keep future misconduct at bay:
  • Encourage employees who see something inappropriate to interrupt and voice their distaste.
  • If there is a certain worker who keeps coming up in these exchanges, don’t let them be alone with another person. Make sure there is always a witness.
  • If you find proof yourself or have intel from another employee, do not normalize the behavior.
  • Implement a written or verbal policy on workplace romance that is readily available to all employees. Most rules will ban any relationships between bosses and subordinates or push for “love contracts” that disclose relationships.
  • Create an environment where employees feel comfortable asking questions about company rules at all times. Don’t just leave it for a few HR sessions.
Resist the urge to ban all office romance because that may prompt office relationships to grow more secretive. Part of disclosing relationships with HR is keeping both parties accountable. The reality is that work is a common place for people to find partners and spouses. In some cases, romantic advances are not always unwelcome.
While one school of thought is crying out for different degrees of misconduct to be punished accordingly, others scoff at the notion. There is no black and white when it comes to moving forward with this delicate subject matter. Companies also have to address whether social settings outside the office are subject to the same rules as workplace behavior. Answering that problem will then lead to the obvious question of whether romantic interactions are ever appropriate at work? Before you answer that, consider employee viewpoints on that issue.

Things Employees Should Consider

Do employees give up the notion of a workplace romance or do they become even more secretive? The problem with this particular issue is that there is so much grey area that it’s hard to know what the new protocol is today. Is a simple hug an assault? What if it’s a work friend? What if it’s your boss? What if you’re at the company off-site happy hour? The difficult question, with the ever elusive answer, is where do we draw the line?
Professional and social settings are continually being meshed together in our lives. Employees are capable of introducing social events, like holiday parties, to work or bringing work to social settings. What is acceptable in a bar could very well fly at a company happy hour after hours. At that point, who thinks of it as sexual assault? It may surprise you that men and women disagree on how often it occurs.
Harvard Business Review put out a survey that found that both genders agree on what sexual harassment is, but did not match in opinion on the frequency. Two-thirds of men agreed with the statement that the amount of sexual harassment at work is greatly exaggerated. Women, however, were less convinced with one-third of the women partly or fully agreeing. In fact, women are more prone to pick up the signs like too-close talking, comments about appearance, personal questions, or dirty jokes.
So, we have to ask, when is it assault and when is it "harmless" flirting? Well, the answer is entirely situational. Like any interaction with another human being, if it’s consensual, it’s welcomed, but if it’s not consensual, it’s creepy. That involves some dangerous guesswork for a coworker. In many situations, a less powerful worker could be playing along just to appease the abuser. This is in no way deemed consent. #MeToo has caused a culture to reevaluate their past experiences. Federal courts have ruled that a woman who willingly participates in or even initiates inappropriate behavior at work could still successfully sue for sexual harassment over such conduct if she did not invite it in that specific instance. This further proves the point that office romances are a very risky business, yet people still attempt them.
Office relationships are so commonplace that there have been several studies on their prevalence in the workplace. Here are just a few statistics from a sample of studies:
  • In a 2015 Mic survey, nearly one in five surveyed (ages 18 to 34) said that they had met their current spouse or partner through work.
  • A 2016 survey conducted by ReportLinker found that 27% of participants mentioned work as a way to meet partners. Millennials were also found to be more likely than older singles (33%) to view the workplace as a dating pool.
  • In 2017, Vault released an Office Romance Survey that found 57% of people had some kind of personal relationship with a colleague. This includes a quick fling or an ongoing long-term relationship. More surprisingly, 10% of respondents met their spouse or current partner at work.
The fact that office romance is still happening shouldn’t surprise you too much. However, the kind of intraoffice relationships might.
A 2017 survey conducted by Fierce Inc. asked 1,000 respondents about their own experiences with romance in the workplace. The survey showed that 25% of those surveyed said that they’d had a workplace romance. Of that percentage, 40% were top-level employees, such as owners and executives. The rest of participants that admitted to a workplace romance were middle-level managers (26%), intermediate-level workers (25%), and lower-level employees (9%). Senior employees, in the past, may have been more willing to report their workplace relationships than lower-level workers because they didn’t fear the repercussions, but they may start to think twice before initiating such relationships in this #MeToo world.
Now, what can you do if you still decide to proceed with an office romance?
Learn about the rules in your office and be transparent with HR and the leadership from the start. Most organizations will have binding guidelines regarding these kinds of relationships. You can still be private about your relationship in regards to your coworkers, but addressing it with the higher-ups will add a contractual agreement. This contract should protect both of you if the relationship were to go south. This is especially true if you are a women. It is reported in a recent Careerbuilder study that nine percent of women have left a job because a workplace romance went sour, versus only 3 percent of men.
Gone are the days where you meet your coworker in the broom closet for your 1 o'clock rendezvous. As long as you are respectful of the rules, consider each other's reputation in the workplace, and respect your other coworker's space and time, you should be able to pull off an intraoffice romance. Sometimes love is work the risk.