Sex in the Workplace

Last Updated May 23, 2011 3:40 PM EDT

Sex in the workplace is always a hot topic, especially around the water cooler. Lately, however, it's been in the news. It seems some people have super poor judgment.

We'll start with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF head who resigned after he was arrested on charges of rape. Rape should never be confused with office romance, but apparently, according to a New York Times article, this wasn't his first accusation of inappropriate sexual activities. The NYT reports:
And questions have been revived about a 2008 episode in which the I.M.F. decided that Mr. Strauss-Kahn had not broken any rules in sleeping with a female employee.
Because sleeping with someone who reports up to you (and everyone reports up to you when you are the boss), doesn't ever cause any problems? Let's just say no to this.

The NYT frames this as a gender issue, but it's a power issue. More men are in high level positions than women are, so it can appear to be a gender thing, but it's not. A female CEO shouldn't be sleeping with any of her employees either.

It's definitely a culture issue as well. It wasn't just Strauss-Kahn who was sleeping with others at the office. The NYT describes the culture at the I.M.F. as one dominated by "alpha-male economists." (I have to say, one doesn't usually see the term "alpha-male" used to describe economists, but so be it.)

When the problems were ignored, they didn't (surprise) go away. In fact, the denial that a problem existed reached almost ridiculous levels. For example, the NYT writes:
In another case, a young woman who has since left the I.M.F. said that in 2009, a senior manager in her department started sending her increasingly explicit e-mails seeking a relationship. She complained to her boss, who did not take any action.

"They said they took it seriously, but two minutes later they were turning around and acting like everything was O.K. to the person who had done it to me," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she still works in the international development community. "He wasn't punished. Not at all."
They say now this wouldn't happen because they've implemented a policy where you have to report any relationship that has a potential for conflict of interest. Let us be clear here: There is no romantic relationship between employee and manager that does not have a potential conflict of interest.

Bad sexual choices aren't limited to economists, though. Another prominent case involves not a well known business: Sidwell Friends School. If it doesn't ring a bell, think Presidential Children and other offspring of the Washington elite. The Washington Post is reporting that the school is being sued by a father who claimed that one of their employees (a psychologist) was having an affair with his wife, while treating their daughter.

The facts of the case are in dispute. However, one thing is for sure: You don't want your employees having affairs with married clients. And yes, parents who write tuition checks are certainly the school's clients. Using the I.M.F. standard of "potential" for conflict of interest, no staff member should be dating/attempting to date/sleeping with any student's parent, regardless of the marital status of either party.

And last, but certainly not least is the Sperminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He and his wife have separated after revealing that he fathered a child with a member of his household staff.

So, if you're drafting a policy to cover workplace "dating," just what do you do? And how do you define dating or relationships? If two employees go to the movies together, is that a date? Do you define it as sexual activity? Because while the problems listed above all dealt with sex, you can have problems in the workplace long before everyone's clothes come off.

Friendships between supervisor and the supervised can cause contention and favoritism in the workplace. If Jan the manager and Katie the analyst are BFFs, then how can you be sure that the reason Katie got a bigger raise than Steve, Heidi and Carlos is because she's a better employee? So much of what makes one employee "better" than another is subjective. Even if Katie is the best employee, the other 3 in the group will think that the manager shows her favoritism because of their relationship.

So, what to do? When making policy, you have to think through how it will be applied and interpreted. You also need objective criteria or it becomes way too murky. So, you can't really ban "friendships" because just what is a friendship? But, you definitely do want to ban romantic relationships between boss and employee.

So, while it seems a bit wimpy the I.M.F. "conflict of interest" standard actually makes some sense. But that should apply to all relationships, sexual or not. Additional clarity is needed around sexual relationships. Anyone who has hire/fire/supervisory responsibilities over another person should absolutely not be allowed to continue both a romantic and supervisory relationship. Clients should be off limit as well.

As a general rule, businesses should stay out of their employees' private lives, but when those lives spill into the office, the office has to protect itself against potential law suits, violation of sexual harassment laws, and judgment that is compromised.

For further reading:
Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
Photo by yugenro, Flickr cc 2.0

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