#MeToo Revelations Have Made Workplace Romances Complicated For Employers

By Ally Marotti
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As more women come forward with stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, the conversation about dating in the workplace is shifting.

Chicago Tribune

These days, office romances are full of paperwork.

Since the #MeToo movement caught fire last fall on social media, human resources expert Sharon Sellers said, there’s been an uptick in employers inquiring about so-called love contracts, which newly dating co-workers sign to assure their boss that everything is consensual. Employees tend to laugh at them, but they’re an employer’s way of reducing risk if the relationship sours, said Sellers, president of South Carolina-based consulting firm SLS Consulting.

Workplace romances have always been laced with the forbidden, be it by company policy or social taboo. But as more women come forward with stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, often at the hands of men at higher pay grades, the conversation about dating co-workers is shifting.

“It’s changing everyone’s perspectives,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which released a survey on workplace romance earlier this month. “(It used to be) laissez-faire, people can date who they want to date, but I think companies are realizing to create a safe environment for the employees, there needs to be some policing.”

It’s a delicate balance to strike, though, and banning relationships isn’t always the answer, Challenger said. When co-workers spend more waking hours at the office than at home, romances are bound to blossom. But some are also destined to fail.

Of the 150 human resource executives Challenger, Gray & Christmas surveyed in January, more than 60 percent said they’ve had to deal with a failed or inappropriate relationship at work. One-third ended in at least one person’s separation from the company.

Cafe Marie-Jeanne in the Humboldt Park neighborhood is fortunate, co-owner Mike Simmons said. He and his wife, co-owner Valerie Szafranski, haven’t had to deal with any co-worker relationships that have gone wrong since opening the restaurant in January 2016. The cafe has “a very hard-line ‘no’ policy” regarding harassment of any type — among co-workers and from guests.

Simmons wants to believe that everyone respects each other all the time, but he said he knows there are moments that aren’t on his or Szafranski’s radar. They have tried to keep a conversation regarding the #MeToo movement going with their employees over the past several months. It helps that workers know where they stand, and they can learn about where the employees stand, Simmons said.

“We also feel like it’s a way to counter, just in our little corner of the city and of the business, this type of toxic behavior that’s starting to come to light,” he said.

The #MeToo revelations caused nearly 35 percent of respondents to the Challenger survey to review their sexual harassment policies.

Besides the increasing inquiries regarding love contracts — also called consensual romance in the workplace agreements — Sellers said she has considered ways to alter her training to focus more on dignity and respect in the workplace. It’s important that everyone thinks that they can speak up about an employee being mistreated, Sellers said.

Banning relationships doesn’t work in building a healthy environment, said Jeana Anderson Cohen, founder and CEO of Chicago-based fitness blog aSweatLife. She dated a co-worker at a restaurant where she worked in college, and it didn’t end so well. “I left,” she said.

The restaurant forbade its workers to date, so of course they all dated anyway, just in secret, Anderson Cohen said.

“There was a breakdown in teamwork and communication, and that’s the worst scenario,” she said. “You have to be able to trust each other in any workplace.”

Last year, Anderson Cohen launched a technology company with her husband called SweatWorking. Its app connects people to trainers and workouts. With only five full-time employees, the company doesn’t have a set policy on dating co-workers, Anderson Cohen said, but the discussion stemming from the #MeToo movement has her brainstorming.

If co-workers are in a relationship, disclosing it can help the employer take care of anything improper before it happens, such as a romance where power dynamics are at play, she said.

Some companies share that concern. Seven out of 10 respondents to the Challenger survey do not allow relationships between a manager and a direct report.

“The power imbalance is a dynamic that happens in relationships regardless, and then you add pay and performance on top of it, it’s just I think too much for any human being to handle,” Anderson Cohen said. “Someone’s going to take advantage of it.”

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