A lawyer at a prestigious law firm is assigned to mentor a first-year law school student who has been hired as a summer associate. The lawyer and summer associate spend considerable time together, and an attraction develops. The summer associate suggests the two begin dating, but the lawyer declines. The two continue working closely together, and the lawyer gives the summer associate a ride to barbecue at a senior partner’s house. On the way home, the two stop for ice cream, and the summer associate kisses the lawyer. Michelle Obama was the lawyer and mentor, and she describes in her new memoir, Becoming, how the summer associate, Barack Obama, won her heart at that law firm in Chicago.
It’s not just the creepy, lecherous types that pursue workplace romance. When coworkers who share similar interests spend significant amounts of time together, some are bound to feel attraction to one another and romance is inevitable. Statistics indicate that about half of us have had a workplace relationship at some point in our careers. Office romance happens, and there is little organizations can do to control it.
Unfortunately, for organizations, workplace romance can be a huge headache. Workplace romance can result in allegations of favoritism, harassment, assault and retaliation, so it’s no wonder that organizations try to forbid or discourage these office flings. But the truth is, as hard as they try, organizations can’t prevent these relationships from happening. So what should organizations do? Instead of focusing energy on keeping their employees out of romantic relationships, I believe they should teach their employees how to pursue these relationships in a professional manner.
Professional romance may sound like an oxymoron, but with the organization’s help employees can learn how to pursue relationships in a professional manner. Organizations often spend incredible amounts of time and money teaching employees about sexual harassment, but virtually no time is spent teaching how to navigate romance at work. Since ignoring these relationships doesn’t seem to be working so well, it’s time that organizations address them head on and teach employees how to professionally pursue romance.
By far, the most important lesson for employees is how to obtain consent. Some states have adopted a “yes means yes” standard requiring affirmative consent for college students engaging in sexual activity. According to this policy, silence cannot be interpreted as consent, the consent must be affirmative. Organizations should adopt a similar policy, teaching employees that before the grope, the kiss, the touch on the thigh, they must obtain affirmative consent.
Fortunately, there are apps that can help. Apps such as uConsent, LegalFling, The Consent App and YesMeansYes allow potential lovers to obtain and provide electronic consent. Consent can also be withdrawn at any time. Individual organizations could have their own rules about how exactly their own app should work, but they could require that all workplace relationships have electronic consent before any physical contact occurs. Barack would have had to obtain electronic consent from Michelle before leaning in for the post-ice cream kiss.
These apps can provide additional advantages beyond just documenting consent. For example, an app can be set up to ask a few personal questions to be sure it’s you and to be sure you’re not too drunk to consent (e.g. what’s your mom’s birth month multiplied by 35?).
From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, a common thread in many of the recent sexual harassment and assault cases is that the accuser believed the sexual activity was consensual. With the app, they’d have to confirm consent prior to the act. If they failed to use the app, they’d be breaching company policy, regardless of whether the act was consensual.
In other words, those who groped or kissed without garnering permission could no longer suggest that they thought the contact was consensual. Yet another advantage of an app is it provides a historical record of obtaining consent or lack of it. If an employee comes under scrutiny and has pursued consent from a large portion of his or her employees, that may serve as a red flag as well.
This app would certainly not solve all problems relating to consent, but it would solve a significant portion of them. One could certainly feel coerced into providing consent on the app, or there could be issues when wants to withdraw consent, but doesn’t have access to a phone. Questions of data security and who would know about the consent would also have to be addressed. There are clearly still problems, but the app would solve more problems than it would create. It would be a net win for organizations.
Asking A Coworker Out On A Date
In his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama describes how Michelle repeatedly turned him down for a date, but he finally “wore her down.” Although it worked out for Barack and Michelle, it’s generally not a great strategy for employees to try to wear down their prospective dates.
Instead, employees need to be told they get only one shot at asking an employee out on a date. There can be no repeated invitations or wearing down of employees. If an employee gets turned down, they cannot ask again – not in a week, not in a month, not ever again. Google and Facebook have adopted this one chance strategy as a rule for all their employees, and it’s an essential part of pursuing professional romantic relationships at work.
Because workplace romantic relationships are often discouraged or forbidden by the organization, employees engaged in romance often feel compelled to keep them secret. As a result, organizations have no way to monitor the couple. For example, there’s no way to know if special favors, promotions, or pay raises are given to a lover over a more highly qualified employee. Therefore, encouraging employees to disclose the relationship to human resources should be part of professional relationship training.
Ending The Relationship
Most relationships don’t last quite as long as Barack and Michelle. Couples break up and must continue to see each other at work, or even collaborate with one another after the relationship dissolves. This is perhaps the trickiest part for the organization. But again, if the organization is aware of the relationship and the dissolution, they can provide guidance and oversight in this process. If the breakup is particularly cantankerous, than the organization can assign a professional to help guide the two on how to resume their professional working relationship post-dissolution.
If this sounds like a lot of work for a date or hookup, that’s good. It should be a lot of work. Employees should not engage in workplace romance lightheartedly. They should understand the pitfalls and realize that complications are likely.
Relationships are also a no-win situation for the organization, and it makes sense that they want to steer clear of them entirely. But workplace romance will happen with or without the organization’s input, and it will be better for everyone if the organization is involved in professionalizing the pursuit of office romance.