Workplace Romance in the MeToo Age

Now, more than ever, your job may be on the line

The past months have given rise to a whirlwind of allegations involving sexually inappropriate behavior. Careers have been brought down amidst stories of outrageous actions that were disregarded for decades, but are now not tolerated. It’s all probably making us wonder what, exactly, is the law? What types of behaviors will be deemed actionable infractions? Is there conduct you engaged in a year ago that would get you fired today?

The short answer is, yes. On October 8, 2017, the date The New York Times published allegations of sexual assault regarding Harvey Weinstein, a fire was ignited. While no new sexual harassment laws have been enacted, enforcement has changed dramatically; a different standard of credibility has taken hold, and this changes how the law is applied.

The #MeToo movement has people reflecting on their and others’ actions with greater scrutiny. But in many ways, rather than increased clarity, this trend has given rise to fear that any romantic overture or non-sexual compliment will be misconstrued—particularly in a work environment. So, is it now off limits to consider dating anyone you work with?

Fishing from the company pier is nothing new. Since most people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, it’s natural that deeper connections will develop. One survey reports that one in every four workers acknowledges either currently or previously having a dating relationship with someone in their workplace.

That said, there are some rules and standards to pay close attention to. First, sexual harassment, which is a form of discrimination based on sex, establishes two types of offending behavior: unwelcome overtures, actions or statements of a sexual nature; and a collection of behaviors or statements that amount to a hostile work environment. Both are based in subjective and factually sensitive experiences. Therefore, it’s extremely important to get consent in any potential workplace dating relationship, and make sure there is no power relationship between dating parties. In fact, there shouldn’t even be flirting between supervisors and their supervisees. Period.

Some companies have incorporated new strategies to ensure that the workplace remains a place for work. Facebook and Google have both recently implemented what’s referred to as a “one-strike rule,” wherein an employee is allowed one overture toward another within the workplace (only if there is no direct power relationship). Any answer short of an unequivocal yes is considered a rejection.

This type of policy addresses issues of perceived coercion, and raises the bar on what constitutes consent. Still, it doesn’t provide guidance on how to navigate a consensual relationship gone awry.

Failed workplace relationships can present a minefield that, if not handled properly, can lose you your job. A recent survey (taken before the Weinstein revelations) found that 33 percent of unsuccessful workplace dating relationships resulted in at least one person being terminated. An additional 17 percent resulted in departmental transfers, and 5 percent led to litigation. No matter how you slice it, dating someone at work can pose great risk for your career.

If you need additional guidance on a workplace relationship issue, or feel that you were wrongfully terminated because of a work relationship, talk to a knowledgeable employment law attorney with experience in workplace sexual harassment. For more information about this area, see our overviews on employment law for employees and sexual harassment.

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