July 24th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Thou Shalt Not Fish Off of the Company Pier

The first law of civilization is this: Don't Shit Where You Eat. There are mammals stupid enough to foul their own nests, to crap all over their own food. Don't be one of them.

That's my interpretation of a long overdue California state Supreme Court decision that was handed down last Monday. As it was summarized in today's Sunday New York Times: "In a ruling that significantly expands the law on sexual harassment in the workplace, California's Supreme Court ruled that workers can sue when a colleague who is sleeping with the boss is shown repeated preferential treatment." (For more details and analysis, see Mireva Navarro, "Love the Job? What About Your Boss?", New York Times, July 24, 2005.)

But first, a bit of relevant personal history, so you know where I'm coming from. When I was working at one particular large corporation, let's call it The Conspiracy, they had one particular manager who was making so much money for the company that they chose to overlook five multi-million-dollar payouts they had to make to settle sexual harassment suits, brought by temp workers under his supervision, in less than five years. When the sixth came along, the previous five payouts were brought to the judge's attention, so the judge stuck a proviso on the settlement before he would approve it: The Conspiracy had to put all of their workers through anti-sexual-harassment training. Honestly, the place needed it; the level of sexism and sexual harassment there was mind boggling, more appropriate to the 19th century than the 20th. So like everybody at The Conspiracy, it eventually came to be my turn to go take a one-day course, along with 20 other people at a time, under the supervision of a sexual harassment avoidance training consultant.

Early in the discussion, it was brought up that under the law, any unwelcome sexual advance against a co-worker can be classified as sexual harassment, and the workplace held liable if they fail to discipline you for it. The trainer also admitted, before anybody else could even bring it up, that there's no way to know in advance whether a sexual advance towards a co-worker would be welcome or unwelcome. "So," she asked the room, "when is it appropriate to make a sexual advance towards a co-worker, and how do you know?"

Nobody else stuck their hand up, so eventually I did. When called on, I said, "Never. 'Thou shalt not fish off of the company pier.' Unless having sex with your co-workers is in your job description, then that's not what you're supposed to be doing at work. And how do I know? Because I was brought up right." (And that was how I was raised; it was one of my father's oft-repeated cardinal rules.) Most of you probably can't even imagine the firestorm of protests that brought, including from the front of the room. And according to a survey by CareerBuilder.com that was quoted in the Times article, 75% of the working public disagrees with me. But I stand by my guns, because I have seen many, many romantic and/or sexual relationships in the workplace, and I have never seen one that didn't create significant problems for the employer and can count on the thumbs of one hand all of the ones I've seen that didn't create significant problems for one or both (or all) of the co-workers involved.

And there is nowhere, nohow, nothing more toxic to a workplace than when someone is dating her boss. (Yes, I said "her." I'm sure that somewhere there must be a guy slept his way up the ladder. But in almost 30 years in the workforce, I've never seen it.) It is horribly toxic because one of two things will happen: that worker will get raises and/or promotions, or they won't. If they don't, they'll break up and then sue, claiming everything from sexual harassment to sexual discrimination to breach of promise to you can't even imagine what else. If they do, then whether they deserved it or not, everybody else in the department, and for that matter everybody else in the company who knows about it, will be so demoralized that they're guaranteed to slack off on their work. Why work hard, when what it takes to get ahead is kneepads and a bottle of mouthwash? And lest you think that relationships between peers aren't going to cause that problem, I can't count the times I've seen where management got backed into a corner by such a relationship: because then they can't promote either party without creating a situation where someone is sleeping with his or her subordinate.

What the anti-sexual-harassment instructor said to justify workplace sex was that in today's high-stress, winner-take-all business climate, the most desirable people are the ones who never spend any of their waking hours anywhere but the office. So if they don't meet their mates at the office, what are they supposed to do, die single and celibate? I said that they're supposed to get a life outside the workplace, and that didn't go over well, even when I put on my best innocent face and asked if that meant that highly successful people never go to church? But in today's high-stress, winner-take-all business climate, what does it do to your economic desirability if you get fired because of a sexual harassment suit? I don't care how high your hormones rage, you need that job more than you need to get laid, and finding your dating partners at work can only end in disaster. (Bringing your romantic partners to work seldom ends any better, for that matter.) I mean let's face it, all relationships that end (and most of them do) end in disaster. Do you need that disaster to splash over into your resumé, throwing you out into the street right when you're at your most emotionally fragile after a breakup? Having sex with your co-workers is just as stupid as fouling your own nest. Don't go there.