Workplace romance in the #MeToo era is so complicated.
NOTE FROM ROBIN: Dear Readers: In honor of Valentine's Day (this coming Wednesday), I am pleased to welcome a guest advice columnist, Dr. Loveless, who will answer all your questions about handling workplace romance during these difficult times. (DISCLAIMER: Even though this is an advice column, nothing here is LEGAL advice.)
♥ DEAR DR. LOVELESS: Our company has always allowed employees to have consensual romantic relationships. After all of the sexual harassment allegations that have recently come to light as a result of #MeToo, should we change our policy? Signed, Questioning
Dear Questioning: Your concern is well founded, and I suspect that many employers will be advised to overreact by banning all consensual workplace relationships. In my opinion, that is unrealistic. It makes more sense to acknowledge that employees will sometimes form personal relationships, and to take sensible precautions. That would include (1) requiring the employees to disclose their relationship to a Human Resources representative as soon as it becomes more than "platonic," (2) requiring the parties to sign an Consensual Relationship Agreement such as this one from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM membership may be required to access), and, if they are in a direct reporting relationship, (3) requiring one of them to move to another position to avoid any appearance of favoritism.
♥ DEAR DR. LOVELESS: Are you really a doctor? Signed, Skeptical
Dear Skeptical: I am a Juris Doctor. Doesn't that count?
♥ DEAR DR. LOVELESS: Do you think it's a coincidence that Valentine's Day is falling on Ash Wednesday in this #MeToo year? Signed, Repent The End Is Near!
Dear Repent The End Is Near!: The timing certainly appears to be more than mere happenstance. Tom + Lorenzo don't say whether sackcloth and ashes is appropriate workplace attire for 2018, but my vote is "Fabulous!"
♥ DEAR DR. LOVELESS: I have a co-worker to whom I am very attracted. I would like to move beyond a mere "working relationship" with her, but I am afraid that if I do it, I'll be accused of sexual harassment. Do you have any advice for me? Signed, Heartsick
Dear Heartsick: You will need to proceed cautiously, and with a great deal of patience. (She's worth it, right?) You don't say whether you or she are already married or in a relationship, and you don't say whether she has shown any signs of being attracted to you. I'll assume you are both single and unattached, and that she at least doesn't find you repulsive. If you already have a good working relationship with her, by all means keep that going. Try inviting her to lunch with other co-workers, and see whether she accepts. Keep up with these group lunches, but not more than once every couple of weeks. Pay attention to her verbal and non-verbal cues. If she regularly joins several group lunches and doesn't give any vibe of trying to avoid you, ask her to lunch alone. Keep it friendly, neutral, and businesslike, and don't drink. Don't go anyplace fancy. If things go well, continue the friendly lunches for a while. If she starts inviting you, or talking to you about her life outside of work, great. At some point, you can try inviting her for coffee immediately after work. If she accepts, and if things go well during coffee, you may be to the point when you can ask her for a real date. If, at any point in this long process, you sense that she is not interested in a personal relationship with you, back off immediately, and go back to "friendly but strictly business." In the workplace, you must take "no" for an answer.
♥ DEAR DR. LOVELESS: I was in a relationship with my supervisor. Our company didn't have any rules, so I still report to him, and we never disclosed anything to HR. About six months ago, I fell in love with a wonderful guy, so I ended the relationship with my supervisor. Dr. Loveless, my supervisor has gone crazy since I broke up with him! He begs me to give it "one more chance," and he leaves me voice mail messages at home, drives by my house, "accidentally" runs into me when I'm at the mall, and leaves love letters in my mailbox. I've explained the whole situation to my boyfriend, and he understands and has been patient, but he's starting to pressure me to do something about it before he does. What should I do? I need my job! Signed, The Hunted
Dear The Hunted: Go directly to HR and report what is happening. You have not done anything wrong or violated any company policy, so feel free to disclose the full history of your relationship with this supervisor. If you have kept the love letters, make copies and take them with you. Save any voice mail messages you've received, and share those with HR, too. After turning the matter over to HR, you should seriously consider going to the police, because this sounds like stalking.
♥ DEAR DR. LOVELESS: I'm married to a great gal, but I've always had what they call a "wandering eye." About six months ago, I was on a business trip with my boss, who is a very attractive lady, and one thing led to another, and . . . well, you know. Fast forward to today, my boss is expecting me to leave my wife for her, but like I said my wife is a great gal, and even though I stray sometimes I don't want to get a divorce. At the same time, I'm worried about what my boss will do if I break up with her. I really only meant for it to be a one-night stand. Signed, Romeo
Dear Romeo: You'd better have a long talk with your wife because this whole mess is probably going to blow up in your face. (Your boss's face, too, if she pursues you against your will or retaliates against you for ending the relationship.) But since your wife is such a "great gal," I am sure she will understand.
♥ DEAR DR. LOVELESS: Are you really Robin? Signed, Suspicious
Dear Suspicious: You are so suspicious! Why can't you trust anyone?