The #MeToo campaign has highlighted many admitted and alleged cases of sexual harassment, assault and even rape in every type of workplace. While primarily cis-women have come forward, there are victims of all genders. Given these revelations, it’s difficult to argue that traditional, every-other-year anti-harassment training can effectively address the underlying issues. After all, companies have been regularly conducting that training for 30 yearsCommentators are speculating that this movement has grown strong enough to begin to actually change the national culture of how we approach and address consensual adult sexuality. Some worry that the pendulum may swing too far. Masha Gessen fears a “moral panic.” Cathy Young reported concerns that minor transgressions might start to receive the same punishment as actual assaults. Identifying a middle path, Christine Emba urges us to “rethink sex,” arguing that part of the solution is to advance a more clearly stated sexual ethos that takes into account things like social norms and disparities in power. Such an approach aligns naturally with the role ethics and compliance professionals play in helping their workforces to understand risks and guide them to acceptable behavior.
Traditionally there’s not a lot of discussion regarding appropriate sexual mores in the workplace, except for discussions about sexual harassment. That is beginning to change. Employees are starting to ask questions about how to know whether a sexual or romantic overture to a coworker will be deemed workplace-appropriate. In a workplace of adults, this will come down to a question of whether any romantic or sexual relationship engaged in by coworkers is consensual. Inevitably, that discussion will take place in hindsight.
Effective compliance programs give employees decision tools that help them decide for themselves whether a particular action is appropriate. One popular decision tool format is a list of questions that get employees focused on factors that signal potential problems in a given situation. The following questions provide a starting point to help employees understand the risks that exist and help them decide when it is and is not appropriate to pursue a sexual or romantic relationship in the workplace.
|1.||Are employees at the same career level?||Power imbalances can lead a lower-status individual to feel compelled to assent, and can raise concerns about whether a relationship is genuinely consensual.|
|2.||Have both parties clearly expressed a sexual or romantic interest in one another? Did those expressions of interest occur when the employees were sober?||The fact that one person finds another attractive or alluring isn’t enough. Coworkers should not make a move unless they can articulate something specific that the other person has said or done at a time they were sober that demonstrates a sexual or romantic overture is welcome.|
|3.||Are there any red flags, such as one person being married or in a committed relationship?||Adults can consent freely in any circumstance, but if red flags exist an employee should be especially sure their overture will be welcomed. (See question 2.)|
|4.||Have overtures been rejected in the past?||No means no, and trying even a second time can result in a harassment claim.|
It’s impossible to know whether a true cultural shift is happening, or whether these issues will fade into the background as they have in the past. Regardless, by providing a framework to think through the ethical issues that arise when coworkers consider sexual or romantic relationships, we can decrease the chances of non-consensual encounters and enhance employee understanding of the types of risks these relationships create.