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More Than 50% Of Us Had An Office Romance — So What Counts As Sexual Harassment?

Originally written by Annamarie Houlis for Fairygodboss
office romance
Suvan Chowdhury/Unsplash

When Jessica Kay met her then-coworker and now-husband of eight months, the pair had to consult their company’s employee manual to figure out if they were allowed to pursue their interest in each other.

Kay and her husband met in the office six years ago. They were both 26 years old at the time, and the global biotech company for which they both worked was Kay’s first job out of graduate school. She was a marketing communications specialist and her now-husband was three years into his career as a product manager at the time.

“We first started out as just coworkers and worked really well together for about three and a half years before romantic interested started to spark,” Kay remembers. “When we began dating, we first looked into our employee handbook to make sure the company didn’t have any policy around intra-office dating. The only thing we could find was if one of us reported to the other person — that would be the only scenario where it wouldn’t be acceptable.”

Office trysts begin the same way any romance does — with shared interests and attraction.

Kay says they had a lot in common. They were the same age; they both came from the University of California; they’re both of Taiwanese decent and they both have degrees in the sciences. Because of all that, they had a lot of respect for one another and formed a friendship. Kay was also involved in another relationship at first, so they were strictly friends.

Their personal relationship started after they began traveling often together (always with a group) for conferences. Then they started going to rock climbing gyms and on snowboarding trips together and, when her relationship ended, their friendship quickly turned into a romance. They dated for 10 months before moving in together and, in another eight months, they were engaged.

Kay and her husband kept their relationship under wraps until their engagement. In the meantime, they worked together on different projects, which showed them how well they worked together as a couple. But it also meant that they needed to keep it professional — they decided they’d prepare for meetings in the same ways they always did, ask questions of each other in the same ways and comment and critique each other in the same ways. They avoided eating lunch together too often and didn’t hang out anywhere near the office, either.

As things progress, keeping an office relationship under the radar can get tricky.

“For the first 10 months it was easy to keep it away from people because we went home to different places,” Kay says. “After we moved in together, it became a bit trickier. We were lucky that it was also when my husband started to work from home more. Because of some of the organizational shifts, he no longer needed to go into the office. So we were able to still keep our relationship under the radar. There were times when he did need to go in, and we would drive to the office together, and he would drop me off on the side of the building so I walked in from a different entrance than he would.”

She adds that they were really clear on not wanting their relationship to impact people around them or the perception of their work. They were also adamant that they didn’t want to disclose the relationship before they were engaged because they felt that engagement news was less likely to stir distracting gossip than simply dating news. When they got engaged, they told HR and then their respective managers. After their approval and understanding, they broke the news to the extended team and other coworkers.

“To a bit of our surprise, people were very happy for us and supportive,” she says. “A lot of our workers actually ended up coming to our wedding earlier this year. We are very happy to have them in our lives.”

Kay isn’t alone in meeting a future partner at work — according to one recent survey, it’s actually quite common.

Kay and her partner number among the 57 percent of people who’ve had some kind of personal relationship with a colleague — albeit a quick fling or an ongoing long-term relationship, according to Vault’s 2017 Office Romance Survey.

Given recent news, is there still a place for office romance?Click To Tweet

The most common way for office romances to begin is working in the same department (36 percent) or in nearby offices or cubicles (28 percent). To follow are happy hours and office parties (26 percent) and working on the same project (21 percent). Thirty-four percent of business professionals believe that social media platforms and productivity tools like Facebook and Slack have made it easier for colleagues to pursue romantic interests in one another. In fact, 46 percent even believe that those tools have made it easier to hide such relationships because they don’t have to rely on their philandering being relegated to work emails, in-office encounters or happy hours.

Ten percent of the respondents actually met their spouses or current partners at work, so there is some success. That said, 41 percent of respondents (men and women) say they have deliberately avoided a potential workplace romance. Nearly one-third (32 percent) say it’s unacceptable for coworkers at different levels to date, 27 percent say no to colleagues who work in the same department or on projects together, 21 percent say romantic relations with a client or vendor is a bad idea and five percent say romance in the office is unacceptable no matter what. Perhaps for the same reasons, just 22 percent confess to having used social media platforms and productivity tools to send romantic or flirtatious messages to colleagues — they’re cautious about leaving digital trails, especially in today’s world.

We know that consensual office romances happen. But, given recent news events, is there still a place for them?

Coworkers spend long hours with one other. They depend on each other, collaborate together and probably even vent to one another. They get to know each other well, which can often lead to romantic interests — particularly if they’re left with little time outside of work to meet someone.

Yet in the wake of high-profile workplace sexual harassment accusations and movements like the #MeToo campaign, organizations are cracking down with preventative measures to ensure the health and safety of their employees. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, the solution is nuanced. Will these measures affect office romances between consenting adults, like Kay and her husband?

The scope of workplace sexual harassment makes the answer to this question dubious. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency responsible for processing sexual harassment complaints, says that anywhere between 25 and 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Nearly one-third of the 90,000 complaints received in 2015 included a harassment allegation, and an estimated 75 percent of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported altogether. In 1986, a Supreme Court ruling set the standard that employees had a right to expect not to be sexually harassed at the workplace. Because companies were not sure what constituted as harassment, they started putting extreme policies into place that forbid fraternization between supervisors and their subordinates, as well as between all employees.

Most companies don’t ban intra-office romances, but some have certainly considered taking that approach. Yet, such measures can wind up backfiring by creating a culture of secrecy.

“This is an extreme and draconian approach, which may not actually promote the type of behavior that the company is looking for by driving the behavior underground,” warns Mirande Valbrune, an employee relations and compliance professional with an employment law background. “I have taken a slightly different approach when setting policy at my companies, by discouraging the behavior (without prohibition) amongst co-workers, and requiring disclosure to the company by any employees in a hierarchical reporting relationship.”

Valbrune says that companies can only take action to review and remediate a situation to “avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest or, worse yet, to avoid any potential sexual harassment claims should the affair go sour” if they know it exists. And fraternization will exist.

HR and career consultant — and one of Workforce Management Magazine 15 inaugural “Game Changers” in HR under 40 — Tiffani Murray agrees that keeping a workplace romance a secret “in light of recent workplace issues” is a dangerous move.

“It can cause tension in the workplace for you, but also for your coworkers,” she explains. “Additionally, you have no guarantee that the other person might not complain to HR in retaliation after the relationship has soured. If you are in a position of management or leadership, you should take even more pause before blurring the lines of work and personal. There are plenty of fish in the sea, and I’d suggest another pond outside of the one that pays your bills.”

That said, if the heart wants what it wants, Murray suggests that two consenting adults make themselves aware of the rules and be transparent with HR and leadership from the start, as most organizations have binding guidelines around personal relationships between employees.

As for Kay, she believes that office romances like hers will continue to flourish, even amid the current news climate.

“I think any relationship would still develop anywhere adults have mutual interest and attraction,” she says. “But people need to stay educated, whether that’s around their own company’s policy or how far they are willing to be personally involved, and all the risks involved. When you are informed and educated, the risks are just part of the equation… I think with the way most companies operate, they don’t specifically ban intra-office romances, which is good. But the onus is really on the individual to craft out a plan that will work for them and only them.”

More Than 50% Of Us Had An Office Romance — So What Counts As Sexual Harassment? originally appeared on Fairygodboss.

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