Sex at Work
For the last 247 years (1), women and men have shared the workplace; which means for 247 years? Sex at work has been an issue; bringing with it interesting challenges, especially for those of us in the realm of HR. Well, perhaps not just sex; but certainly the larger topic of workplace romance.
As a society, we’ve always had conflicting beliefs surrounding its acceptability: in 1911, there was even a law was proposed that women stenographers be required to work in wire cages to protect their virtue. While we may not still think that’s a good idea; the societal pendulum certainly hasn’t swung the other direction yet, either. A reported 64% of people surveyed recently by FileTrek think that sex at work should still be a fireable offence. That same percentage of Gen Xers maintained to Workplace Opinions in a recent survey the belief instilled by previous generations: that the office was no place for romance.
That is changing in our younger workers, where an overwhelming majority – 84% – said they’re comfortable dating co-workers & 40% of Millennials surveyed don’t see a problem with dating the boss. That’s quadruple the percentage of previous generations & is heralding an overall change in sentiment regarding acceptable fraternization at work. Check out this infographic released by Careerbuilder on the subject this past Valentine’s Day:
In the 2004 Inc.Com article linked above, Bobbie Gossage took on the subject of actively promoting dating at work. He cited such companies as Princeton Review and Microsoft as being ‘success stories’ for an appropriate venue for finding someone to work on romantically; rather than just with professionally. There were a few reasons; but the overriding theme was: you spend a lot of time work, in an environment packed with people who share similar goals & have a high likelihood for compatibility.
This theme waxed familiar to me: When I ventured into recruiting, I worked for a firm that didn’t just allow interoffice dating; but promoted it from even before the hire. Candidates, were told by that the company ”wants you to be comfortable dating at work. If you do, you won’t rush out of the office to get home or go out because you saw them all day; you’ll be comfortable staying and focusing on work. Your significant other will be comfortable because they’ll know where you are. You’re both happy. We’re happy because we know you’ll be more productive and that’s better for business. Everybody wins.”
Dating as a retention method & productivity carrot. It seemed rather wild, but to the Company’s credit; they won “Best Place to Work” on a local & state level several times & had several marriages to show as a result. But however much having one’s amour at work might have played into that credit? There was an opposite and equal negative debt that had to be paid, as well.
While dipping my dating pen in the company ink was never quite my style; I watched while several of my new co-workers didn’t just dip the pen… they dunked it. ”Serious relationships” & office flings formed left & right. For some, it worked. For others, it worked… for a while; and then it got dicey. And then there were the unlucky people for whom the experience didn’t just fail – it ‘stained’ the way they looked at relationships altogether & ruined the employment relationship.
The first was a beautiful, young girl in my training class who was straight out of college. She began quietly seeing one of the men in the office and was quickly smitten. I was impressed at how they kept things under wraps; not discussing it openly as others did. A few weeks later, I found her sobbing in the bathroom after she’d evidently been caught… by his girlfriend, another co-worker that worked on the other side of the building. Oops. She didn’t know and felt like someone in the company should have warned her. I heard quick whispers of sexual harassment claims; but I never got the chance to ask her because soon after & she was gone. The promotion of workplace romance by the company led to a sexually permissive environment that emboldened other improper advances as well; which made for a couple of horrible bosses , exposed the company to undue risk & was frankly, quite humiliating for those involved… or had to hear about it at the water cooler.
In addition to open humiliation, reputational damage & the risk that comes for the employees with office dating; the employer has risks to consider. If healthy relationships increase productivity then, following the “equal yet opposite reaction” theory, troubled relationships can certainly help tank productivity. That’s bad enough when it’s just the couple that’s affected; but often the ‘aftershocks’ of a dating relationship affect others in the company. People still feel forced to ‘pick sides’ when the couple breaks up; relationships are damaged if there was perceived ‘fault’ or unfair treatment by one party or the other. The increase in gossip leads to a decrease in productivity & the net result it is that affects employees’ ability to function cohesively as a team.
And then there’s another risk we’re all familiar with: sexual harassment. In one survey, over 80% of respondents said that it’d be easy to believe sexual harassment took place if the dating relationship was between a supervisor and a direct report due to the differential in power. It’s hard to prove consent in that situation; which is probably why the average payout on related sexual harassment claims exceeded $250,000 on verdict in 2011 & companies are willing to pay an average 5 figure settlement to keep a claim out of court to begin with.
But the sexual harassment risk a company is exposed to extends beyond the couple when a supervisor is involved. The perception of every other employee under the supervisor’s direction must also be considered. ”Sexual Favoritism” is the term describing an environment that is deemed hostile because it makes the workplace more difficult for employees not involved in the relationship. If preference given to a subordinate is based on favor arising out of a romantic relationship, and if the favoritism is to the detriment of the otherwise similarly situated employees, those other employees may sue.
As it’s often exceedingly difficult to prove intent & internal motivations; it’s not uncommon to see employers choose to cut it off at the knees. Take the Petrino firing by the Athletic Director of the Arkansas Razorbacks last month. This is an excellent example of sexual favoritism that starts at the genesis of the employment relationship. Petrino, the Head Coach, hired his girlfriend – because she was his girlfriend - committing acts of sexual favoritism & discriminatory hiring against over 150 potential candidates that had applied for that role. He further displayed sexual favoritism when he gave her $20,000 as a gift during his employ – despite the fact that it was done with personal funds. Unless he could show he gave that same offer to his other employees; because he was in a sexual/romantic relationship then he’s put the Organization at risk. While his fans may feel he was fired for lying; the truth is it was the only prudent option was for them to swiftly act to put an end to the manipulation caused by Petrino & why some organizations choose to put a fraternization policy in place regarding office dating.
Currently, approximately 15% of businesses have a policy in place regarding workplace dating; but truthfully, that’s the best place for employers to start. The trend is clearly back on the upswing & really, the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” slogan only works with monkeys. A workplace dating policy should be “common sense simple;” requiring disclosure of the relationship, documentation of its voluntary nature by both parties, changing the reporting relationship if a supervisor is involved. It’s also good advice to have HR provide some friendly, casual counseling on appropriate workplace behavior that will help keep the office buzzing…. for the right reasons.
(1) at least; that’s when the first documented society of Women Workers was formed.
(2) now Kelly Services, Inc.
(3) which I guess is okay, as it pre-dated the whole ‘politically correct’ movement