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Sexuality in Conversation

How Not to Have an Office Tryst

While we have become a culture of exhibitionists, revealing many intimate moments and thoughts via social media, some things still remain taboo. Like love and lust in the office. There can be something titillating about a hookup with a co-worker or intoxicating about a longer love affair on the job, yet both of them come with risks. With the era of #MeToo casting a spotlight on inappropriate workplace conduct, interdepartmental entanglements are being caught in that glare.

Racy romance novels about passionate work affairs or office porn devoted to banging your boss or that hot intern certainly fuel steamy fantasies, but try pulling that off in real life. It isn't that easy. (Although a recent EdenFantasy poll of 2,000 people found that 14 percent of Americans have gotten it on at work, and 19 percent of that group did get caught.) At a time when Americans are worried about keeping their jobs, and with the #MeToo movement drawing attention to those who have sexually exploited  people working under them, greater scrutiny is being placed on power dynamics and consent.

“When it comes to workplace romance, the number one concern if this is your livelihood, before you flirt or text, is to check with HR to find out what the consequences are,” says Anne Hodder, a certified sex and relationship educator based in Los Angeles. “I have not heard of a work environment that did not have some policy against workplace romance of any kind. Obviously, you have to decide what is worth the risk and do your own risk management.”

This year, CareerBuilder's Annual Valentine's Day survey—which sampled 809 full-time workers—revealed that office romance is at a 10-year low. In total, 36 percent of employees reported dating a co-worker, down from 41 percent in 2016. Of those, 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women said that they had dated a co-worker two or more times throughout their career. A universal truth is that adults tend to meet prospective partners through two main conduits: Work and friends. With many Americans working longer hours, attraction to an office mate is a likely scenario.

Andy Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a Chicago-based job placement firm, acknowledges that a solid percentage of people have had or are having a workplace romance. “[And that's] despite every piece of advice you'd ever get about not having workplace romance,” he says. “On the other side of it, everybody knows a couple that met at work and fell in love and has a great loving relationship. Because of that, I think it's impossible for workplaces to successfully ban relationships. It's too drastic. It's impossible to ever implement 100 percent effectively, so you're asking people to lie to you in some ways.”

A recent Entrepreneur story about workplace regulations focused on how major corporations like Amazon, Google, and Facebook are handling the issue. Reporter Nina Zipkin discovered that while Amazon does not have a strict policy about office romances—and there are reportedly many marriages that have emerged there—managers must disclose if they are involved with someone underneath them. Google strongly discourages employee relationships involving colleagues that either one manages or reports to, and, in the case of the latter, they have moved employees into different roles. Facebook has what could amount to a single attempt rule. You can ask someone out, and if they refuse—whether directly or saying they are busy or have plans—the initiator is not allowed to ask again. Further, employees are trained as to what are and are not appropriate workplace remarks.

“There's a rise of [what] they call 'love contracts' where the idea is that you have to formalize your relationship at work so HR can help prevent those sticky situations where there's a manager and a subordinate in a relationship together,” says Challenger. “They can watch out for that and move it if there are conflicts of interest. They could move people to different departments. I think that's probably a healthier way for everybody."

It can really fuck up your professional relationships with people, so if you're going to fuck somebody at work, fuck one person.

A veteran human resources manager who works with hedge fund companies, Jack * says that in his business it has never been okay for senior people to date junior workers, especially if someone is at a managerial level and could possibly impact the compensation of the underling.

“In my experience, workplace romances are not usually problematic as long as there's no power imbalance,” says Jack. “We're actually not strictly against workplace romances at the company, provided the people involved are handling themselves maturely and don’t have to interact with each other professionally too deeply.” At one company he previously worked for, for example, employees dating each other within the same department were required to report the situation, and the result was typically that one or the other of them had to find a different role. “Sometimes it was the male, and sometimes the female, and we were conscious of the gender pattern of who had to move.”

“This creates a bit of a chilling effect such that, if two people were in the same department and started dating, they knew they had to keep it secret to prevent one of them from getting transferred,” continues Jack. “But we always end up finding out. Where I am now, we have no such policy, so I have literally sat down with new couples to explain to them that, number one, you can't make your coworkers uncomfortable. Number two, if you ever have a conflict of interest involving the other person, you need to recuse yourself and ask for help. And number three, if either of you becomes responsible for supervising the other, then one of you will have to change roles, and I’m inclined to say that it should be the senior person.”

Jack notes that while hedge funds like to throw parties and events and often encourage after-work socializing, they have scaled back on alcohol consumption in the post-recession and also #MeToo era. But mischief finds a way, and often times, employees host their own afterparties. “We'll have light drinks and food, and the night winds down around 10 when the senior people go home to their families. The kids will then go out somewhere else and have a second, more raucous evening,” says Jack. “The company doesn’t sponsor or sanction it, but it happens anyway. Almost all bad behavior I’ve ever seen happens in that setting, not at official company events, except for the rare person who accidentally drinks too much and inadvertently suffers a reputation decline. If something bad happens between employees at a non-sanctioned event, the company may still choose to take action.” Of course, what happens at the afterparty, stays at the afterparty, and a company might be oblivious to some of its employees' extracurricular excursions.

Drinking can lead to flirting, and flirting can lead to being touchy feely and more. And if there's one industry known for being particularly inappropriate, it's entertainment. Marisa *, a movie production coordinator in Los Angeles, has seen plenty of “showmances” in her career, particularly given the transitory nature of film and television production where people move onto new shows, sometimes never to be reunited. While that gives some people the feeling that there are no consequences, Marisa reveals that, “Everybody knows, everybody can see it, and at the very least, if you make that choice, have some discretion. It's a two-way street. I think it's definitely more difficult for females.”

I was completely shamed because people found out. It's super frustrating. The man isn't shamed at all.

While Marisa has never witnessed actual sex on sets, she has seen people hitting on each other and feeling each other up during budding flings. “I think anybody who actually does want to be serious starts to try to be discreet,” she says.

Marisa recently worked on a Netflix show and confirms recently reported rumors that new company mandates preclude flirting, hugging, and limited eye contact to avoid appearing creepy or making others uncomfortable. Crew members also attended an hour-long meeting about sexual harassment.

“I just found it extreme,” remarks Marisa of the new Netflix policy. “I understand where they're coming from, but [at] my last job I just finished, I hugged my boss goodbye. There was nothing sexual about it. They're very, very strict about it, and I get it. It's the climate these days. But the person that I hugged I have known for 15 years.” She hopes that things do not get too extreme where they undermine progress being made on the issue of sexual harassment. As Marisa notes, one should be able to distinguish between a dirty joke shared among co-worker friends in private and an inappropriate public comment like “nice ass” on set.

Some people enjoy sexual shenanigans on the job. “I'm the worst with workplace stuff because I'm a freelancer, so none of my workplaces last for very long,” says actor and singer Samia Mounts, who moved to Korea from New York in 2017. “I literally enter into every new project looking around for who I'm going to fuck to keep me entertained.”

Mounts says she has learned a few lessons about workplace romances, the main one being to sleep with only one person. She admits to hooking up with more than one person on a past gig and being “burned bad.”

“It can really fuck up your relationship [and] your professional relationships with people, so if you're going to fuck somebody at work, fuck one person,” advises Mounts. “And don't put any pressure on it. Just let it be fun. If it's going to turn into a thing, it will happen on its own naturally.”

The actor says she has not heard about friends hiding workplace romances more in the #MeToo era. “But I have heard men say they have to be careful not to even look at a woman the wrong way or their reputation will be ruined,” adds Mounts. “I have heard men griping that one wrongful accusation has the power to ruin their lives. There's definitely an idea in less 'woke' circles, like this #MeToo is a bad thing for men and will lead to more of them being wrongfully accused.”

Even work relationships that blossom for a time can wilt and wither. There is often a fine line between infatuation and exploitation, and sometimes bad breakups can lead to harassment or other problems. Many romances between equal co-workers, or junior and senior employees, are straight up legit. But others are not.

In March 2018, the poverty-fighting organization CARE released the results of an online survey that included 9,408 adults across eight countries including the U.S. According to the press release, 23 percent of the respondents believed that, “it's sometimes or always acceptable for an employer to ask or expect an employee to have intimate interactions such as sex with them, a family member, or a friend.”

While Hollywood has been turned upside by revelations of sexual impropriety, they are not the only industry that has concealed that issue. As with the music business, the bro culture of Silicon Valley is also due for a #MeToo reckoning. A 48 year-old California-based director of business development in the tech sector, Cassandra * has felt the line being crossed too many times. Her current and previous places of employment are the only ones in her adult life where she has not been hit on by a superior or co-worker.

“My first day [on my first job], I remember I was sitting in his office and I had this like little green suit on, and I went to fix my top just to make sure nothing was showing,” recalls Cassandra. “[My boss] said to me, 'Oh, don't worry about that. I don't mind if anything shows through.' I can to this day just remember the disappointment, the look on my face where I was like, 'Oh my God, is that why you hired me?'”

Following inappropriate comments and suggestions, Cassandra confided in a female VP superior. She found herself fired at the beginning of the following week for allegedly not being experienced enough. But she knew it was because the situation was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

At another job, Cassandra's boss revealed that he had had fallen in love with her. “I'm thinking I'm doing great,” she recalls. “Everything's going well, we're closing deals, we've traveled to China, it's perfect.” But then she realized all of his attention and help came out of desire for her, not a desire to improve business. So she changed teams in the office, which hurt her standing there because the new group was more cutthroat in their tactics. “I wasn't ready to be on a team like that, and I wound up losing my job again.”

The one time Cassandra did date someone at work, the fallout was bad, particularly seeing the person every day and being reminded of their painful breakup. She concluded it was not worth it and would not do it again. “But I was completely shamed because people found out,” she recalls. Cassandra was unfairly labeled as a slut and unprofessional. “It's super frustrating. The man isn't shamed at all.”

On the flip side, some work couples are brazen. Cassandra recalls two executives at an old job having an open love affair. Even when they stayed on the same floor as her for one conference, they were not discreet about being together. “But I would say for the most part people hide their relationship because it's just too taboo,” she adds.

The truth is that even in the age of #MeToo, people will inevitably and routinely fall in lust or love with someone they work with. Many people today work long, grueling hours, and physical attraction can easily become a reality after pervasive closeness draws people together. As noted, that can be good and bad.

“I don't think anything about the #MeToo era is going to make these romances stop,” states Hodder. “If anything, I hope that it will inspire people to ask better, smarter questions and consider impulses. Maybe be a little bit more mindful before jumping in. There are complications and parts of the movement that are absolutely problematic in different ways, but the fact that it's making people think differently about relationship dynamics in different situations, workplaces included, is really valuable.”

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