Tuesday 12 November 2019

Don't ask twice: the new rules for dating at work

Tech companies have introduced a 'one and done' policy that prohibits employees from asking colleagues out if they have already been rebuffed. But does it spell the end of the office romance, asks Katie Byrne

Obama care: Michelle and Barack Obama met while working at a law firm
Obama care: Michelle and Barack Obama met while working at a law firm
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

The cultural shift of the #MeToo movement has made us all sit up and rethink the way we behave in the workplace. Men and women are talking more openly about what constitutes sexual harassment at work (and why a mug emblazoned with 'Office Perv' might not be the best choice of Kris Kindle gift…).

But what about those who are considering asking a colleague out on a date? Could their advances be considered sexual harassment?

It may seem extreme but the answer, according to Facebook's Global Head of Employment Law, Heidi Swartz, is yes. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Swartz outlined the 'one and done' policy in place at the tech company, which prohibits employees from pursuing a romance beyond an initial rejection. If the object of your affection declines your invitation, you're not allowed to ask again. And there's no grey area: ambiguous responses like 'I'm busy' or 'I can't that night' also count as a 'no', Swartz added.

Alphabet, Google's parent company, were also reported to have an ask-once policy in the article. However, a spokesperson from Google confirmed that there is no such policy in place in the Dublin HQ, although allegations of unwanted behaviour are taken very seriously. Facebook Ireland were unavailable for comment.

The ask-once policy has divided opinion. Some think it's a draconian measure, some think it's progressive, and some are just happy to hear that workplace romances don't have to be conducted in secret. After all, when you lift the veil of secrecy, office romances are more common than you might think.

A recent US study found that 57pc of the employees surveyed had participated in some kind of office dalliance: 21pc of these were "random hook-ups", 16pc led to long-term relationships, and 14pc led to "ongoing but casual relationships".

The proximity principle, coupled with increasing working hours, means office romances are inevitable. However, according to HR experts, they aren't always straightforward.

An office romance in its honeymoon period can become a distraction, while one that ends badly can lead to disinterest and absenteeism. Relationships between a supervisor and subordinate can prompt allegations of favouritism.

These issues are still relevant and legitimate, but now, in the wake of #MeToo, the focus has shifted to the issue of sexual harassment.

Employer responsibility for third party sexual harassment has become a hot-button issue in recent years, with many companies updating their policies on office romances to limit liability.

One chance: Some companies have adopted an ‘ask once’ policy
One chance: Some companies have adopted an ‘ask once’ policy

Dublin-based solicitor Colleen Cleary, who heads up a specialist employment practice that often represents employers and employees in such matters, says employers are "legally obliged to provide a safe place of work, which includes preventing harassment in the workplace".

"There are serious obligations, with significant financial penalties if a legal claim is upheld against them," she adds.

This is perhaps why Uber boss Travis Kalanick felt compelled to send his employees a ham-fisted memo ahead of their Christmas party in Miami in 2013.

"Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic 'YES! I will have sex with you' AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command," it read. "Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML."

The email surfaced last year amid a number of sexual harassment allegations at the company, and landed the CEO in hot water once again.

So how should companies handle these matters? Cleary says managers should be trained on how to apply procedures set out in office romance policies, and employees should remember that these policies also relate to work-based social events.

Mary Cullen, the founder and Managing Director of Insight HR, says there needs to be rigorous discussion around the grey area of office romance.

"We do 'Dignity at Work' training and we often explore that whole area of what's okay in the context of the workplace because, traditionally, men might be of the view that you have to pursue and that 'no' isn't really a 'no'," says Cullen.

"That can be challenging from a workplace context. Somebody thinks somebody likes them so they continue to pursue them but we would be inclined to advise employees to ask once, perhaps. But be very sure that there is some interest and you're reading the signals correctly."

There are certainly a number of employees who would welcome such a policy. The colleague being pursued doesn't have to find imaginative ways to delicately decline a second or third request for a date. The colleague who has been rebuffed no longer has to explore the potential subtext of an email that reads 'I'm really busy this week'.

But what happens when a person is genuinely really busy, or otherwise unavailable?

Melinda Gates, who met husband Bill at Microsoft when she was hired as a project manager at the tech company, famously declined his request for a dinner date. When Bill asked if she'd be interested in going for dinner in two weeks' time, she replied: "That's not spontaneous enough for me."

Solicitor Ciara Brady (not her real name), who met her now-husband in a Dublin law firm, had a similar situation. She was delighted when John asked her out for dinner, but she was smack-bang in the middle of wedding season and was due to attend three friends' weddings in a five-week period.

"I told him that I was busy for a month and then, when we finally planned a date, I had to cancel at the last minute. There is no doubt this would have breached an ask-once policy, if there was one in place. But I think John would have persisted anyway. He knew I liked him."

It was less complicated for husband and wife Gavin and Lynne Caffrey, who met while working in a national newspaper.

"We first got together at a colleague's leaving drinks so I don't think the 'ask-once' policy would have had any influence on us. There was no asking as such, it just happened naturally."

In practice, colleagues who have an undeniable mutual attraction probably won't allow the ask-once policy to get in their way.

However, those who don't know if the feeling is reciprocated should probably think twice - by asking just the once.

l Barack and Michelle Obama met while working together at a law firm in Chicago in 1989. Michelle was assigned as Barack's mentor. She declined his first request for a date. "I thought, 'No way! This is completely tacky'," she told ABC News.

l Comedienne Chelsea Handler was in a relationship with her boss Ted Harbert for four years. She told Piers Morgan that she had no reservations about dating the Comcast Entertainment CEO. "I don't think it really matters," she said. "If you are in love with somebody - and I was - it had nothing to do with him being my boss."

l Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and wife MacKenzie met when they were working in investment management firm D.E. Shaw. Jeff was a vice president and MacKenzie was a research associate. She made the first move by asking him out to lunch. She didn't have to ask again.

Irish Independent

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