Can You Have An Office Romance In The Time Of #MeToo?

illustrated by Norah Stone.
A few years ago, Miranda* got a ping on a dating app while she was at work. While that wasn’t out of the ordinary, this particular match concerned her.
“I checked the app at lunch and saw that I was matched with someone I worked with,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so uncomfortable.’”
Although Miranda says she’s okay with office romances in theory, she wasn’t attracted to this male coworker. Due to the particular dating app she was using, she knew it meant that he would eventually see the match, too. It was tricky, and she felt the need to confront the situation head on.
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“I sent him a Gchat. It said something like ‘Hey, we’re both going to agree to ignore this and laugh about it, right?’” Thankfully, he had an equally good-natured response and used the incident as an opening to become office friends.
But in today’s charged atmosphere, Miranda is not sure this situation would have gone down the same way. “I think if this would have happened now, he might have been a little less eager to be friends. What’s top of mind is: Is this going to make someone uncomfortable? Is this going to make me seem like a creep?” she says. “Right now, it feels like all the men are very quiet. They’re not asking about women’s personal lives as much.”
Finding love at work has been tricky for both employers and employees well before the days of #MeToo. But in the fallout of America’s sexual harassment awakening, the culture wars over office romances has been particularly intense: From stories of women who fear their workplace relationships would not be possible today, to men questioning past assumptions that they hadn’t done anything wrong, to overwrought concerns that flirting and sex will be stripped from the workplace and life generally.

In the fallout of America’s sexual harassment awakening, the culture wars over office romances has been particularly intense.

It’s hard to discern whether the scoffing is nostalgia for a bygone era or simply outrage and fear at the changing gender dynamics at the office. On the one hand, some people don’t want flirting at the office to go away. On the other, those who have never been interested in finding love at work are making themselves heard. But it’s hard to process stories of workplace romances of decades past in the current context: Are they even relevant? After all, isn’t that the same line so many sexual predators have utilised as a defence? It was a different time, with different norms.
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In the days of now, there have been calls for due process, and also calls for conversation: Is it true that if you don’t know the difference between flirting and sexual harassment, that you’re doing it wrong? Or are the lines so blurry that the need to hash these things out is more urgent than ever?
The same goes for companies: For employers, colleagues dating at work has always been an awkward territory. But do these new times call for new rules?
“It’s a weird space. It’s a business problem, but one with an emotional component. It feels icky: Other business matters feel like they can be handled in a professional way, but once you get into the world of relationships it feels a little bit like you’re walking in landmines,” says Vanessa Butnick Davis, VP of Research and Product Development at LegalZoom, which advises small businesses on legal issues including workplace romance.
Sometimes there's a company policy around romantic relationships between employees in the part of the employee handbook that people usually skip over until they have an office crush.
Some might say that what is appropriate and inappropriate has always been subjective. Despite a survey saying that office romances are at an all time low, that number is still 36%. No need to fear for those who are outraged: People likely won’t stop dating their colleagues, and companies generally know that banning them completely isn’t a solution. In fact, in some states, it could be illegal.
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“State legislation in relation to workplace dating varies as you cross the U.S. Some states give employees a legally protected right of privacy in order to pursue an intimate or sexual relationship at work, whereas other states may give employers the right to ban these relationships entirely. It’s important that businesses look into their own state’s laws on this topic in order to make sure they’re adhering to relevant regulations when it comes to dating in the workplace,” says Butnick Davis.
Some companies have found creative solutions to addressing dating at work. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that employees at Facebook and Google are only allowed to ask a colleague out once. Ambiguous answers count as a no, and after that, you’re not allowed to ask again.
“One way that harassment can manifest is by repeated rejected advances. It can create a hostile work environment. A feeling that if you do not accept this then you’re going to be punished for not accepting someone’s advances. I think restricting it to a single request is fine. It shows a tolerance for consensual relationships,” says Butnick Davis.
Another way companies deal with these issues are through so-called “love contracts.” These function much like an office-romance pre-nup, with the employees in a romantic relationship agreeing to certain terms. “Instead of dealing with assets being distributed [when the relationship ends], it’s who gets custody of the job,” explains Butnick Davis.
These policies are exceptions rather than the rule. According to a 2013 SHRM survey, 54% of HR professionals said their organisation does not have a written or verbal policy around workplace romances. In the reporting of this story, Refinery29 reached out to dozens of companies inquiring about their employee dating policies. None reported any changes taking place after #MeToo. Butnick Davis also hasn’t seen policy changes shift due to #MeToo among her clients either. “Honestly, I haven’t seen it happening. I know it’s something that should be happening, but I don’t see it.”
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The bottom line, at least for companies, seems to be making sure its employees understand what the policy is.
“Meeting, dating and sometimes even getting married to coworkers are realities that should first be acknowledged and then addressed in an open, fair, and respectful manner,” says Sharon Argov, VP of Growth at HiBob, an HR and employee benefits platform. “Whatever business we're talking about, dating policies must be clear, transparent, and documented. Yes, it's nice to think that all office relationships end with 'I do' and 'happily ever after’. However, the #MeToo movement has shown all of us that sexual harassment is a problem that can't be avoided and must be confronted.”
Even if companies decide official policies don’t need updating, it might not feel that way for everyone on the ground. “Anecdotally, among the men that I’ve worked with, there this kind of reticence to engage with women. This sort of exaggerated, ‘I can’t even talk to women,’ which is completely overblown. You feel like the lines you used to know aren’t as clear as they used to be,” says Butnick Davis.
Further, since many office relationships often involve a manager and a direct report, the odds that it damages a woman’s career is higher due to the fact that gender makeup of a workplace can often mean that a female employee is dating a male superior. Studies have found that a subordinates pay a much higher price for relationships at work than their superiors.
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“Traditionally, a relationship terminates, and if your policy is to move the subordinate, it’s going to have a real impact on women as opposed to men,” explains Davis. One survey found that a third of romantic relationships at work end in termination, and only 5% end in a lawsuit. These consequences are not divorced from office culture, and the power dynamics in workplaces that make romantic relationships potentially damaging for women.
“Women are often painted as ‘a bitch’ if she isn’t friendly to [a male coworker],” says Miranda. “Women are seen as the problem. Even the language around office relationships are so skewed towards criticising women. If #MeToo, and this national conversation, has taught us anything, nothing is fine the way it is.”
*Editor's note: Real names have been changed.
#MeToo has raised the voices of women who’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed — and that’s not just great, it’s revolutionary. So, where does that leave men? To help answer that question, Refinery29 is providing actionable advice for men who want to be allies.
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