Workplace Relationships Decline Amid Heightened Attention to Sexual Harassment

Workplace Relationships Decline Amid Heightened Attention to Sexual Harassment

In its annual survey on office romance, conducted in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, CareerBuilder finds this year that the number of US employees saying they have dated a co-worker at a ten-year low of 36 percent, down from 41 percent last year and 40 percent in 2008:

Thirty-seven percent of men say they have dated a coworker compared to 35 percent of women, while one in five male workers (20 percent) say they have dated someone at work two or more times in their career, compared to just 15 percent of their female colleagues. …

Of those who have dated at work, more than a quarter of women (27 percent) say they have dated someone who was their boss compared to just 16 percent of men. Additionally, 30 percent of these workers say they have dated someone who was at a higher level in the organization than they were. Thirty-five percent of female coworkers reported dating someone at a higher level in the company than them, compared to 25 percent of their male coworkers.

The shift from a ten-year high in last year’s survey to a ten-year low this year may be related to the unprecedented attention finally being given to sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace after countless women opened up about their experiences as part of the #MeToo movement over the past six months. Wider awareness of these problems and an increased focus on preventing harassment and punishing perpetrators have reportedly led to anxieties among men in the workplace about the propriety of their interactions with female colleagues, which would tend to result in fewer workplace romances being initiated.

The shift in public attention and perceptions has also caused a rise in the number of sexual harassment claims being brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in turn is pursuing a greater number of investigations and settlements. In what employment lawyers say is an increasingly litigious environment where employers’ risks of liability are growing, employers are being urged to revisit their sexual harassment policies and ensure that they are focused on protecting victims—Facebook recently publicized its policy, which goes beyond what is required by law, to provide a best-practice model and facilitate a conversation within the business community about how to do better.

While dating among co-workers is relatively common and not necessarily a bad thing, many companies have policies to manage these romantic relationships. Now is a good time to review these policies as well, Allen Smith writes at SHRM, passing along some advice from several attorneys:

Transfers should be lateral for employees involved in relationships between supervisors and direct reports, said Kimberly Harding, an attorney with Nixon Peabody in Rochester, N.Y. “When consensual relationships sour, the fallout can be dangerous for employers, particularly because this scenario creates an incubator for potential #MeToo experiences,” she said. …

Put dating and anti-harassment policies near each other, recommended Rachel Ullrich, an attorney with FordHarrison in Dallas. “I often see employee dating policies in completely different sections of the employee handbook than the sexual harassment and retaliation policies, even though they deal with similar subject matter,” she said. “This can lead to disjointed, conflicting or confusing policies.”

With Silicon Valley being one of the main focal points of the ongoing conversation about sexual respect and gender dynamics in the workplace, the Wall Street Journal’s Yoree Koh and Rachel Feintzeig take a look at how some major tech companies and startups handle the issue of office romance. One rule enforced at both Facebook and Google is that employees are allowed to ask a co-worker out once, but are prohibited from persisting if they are turned down.

Nonetheless, they note, some HR experts say too many rules around dating in the workplace can be hard to enforce and complicate talent attraction and retention. Though they remain rare, more employers are now considering “love contracts,” in which dating co-workers affirm that their relationship is fully consensual and agree to keep things professional in the workplace. Some employees, however, will inevitably find such contracts intrusive, and there’s a limit to how far organizations can reasonably go in policing their employees’ love lives. Striking a balance between protecting employees from sexual harassment and protecting their privacy remains a challenge for employers everywhere.