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Ask A Manager: When it comes to harassment and relationships at the office, what are your rights?

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It’s no secret why we’re talking about sexual harassment and workplace relationships. Things people once whispered to each other are now in the public eye. In Hollywood, sure, but also across industries and offices. So if you do file a report about harassment, what are your rights?

We talked to Alison Green from Ask a Manager to discuss the various boundaries in work relationships. Below is a summary of her answers.  

Lizzie O’Leary: What tend to be the rules when it comes to romantic relationships at work? Are there rules?

Alison Green: There are. I think the biggest is that if you are interested in asking someone out, you get one shot at it and only one. If you ask out a co-worker and you’re turned down you’ve got to leave it there. This is not the time for that style of pursuit that you see in romantic comedies, your co-workers need to be able to work in peace without worrying about having to fend off advances. And you have to be able to deal with rejection gracefully. So you can’t get weird or avoid the person or do anything that’s going to make their working environment less comfortable.

Another one, I think is that you can’t date someone who’s in your chain of command. Most companies these days have policies prohibiting that anyway. But even if yours doesn’t, that is not something you want to do. It can create all kinds of problems around bias and favoritism and abuse of power or even just the appearance of those things, so stay away from that.

And then I think the other big one is let’s say you do ask someone who isn’t inappropriate to date, and they say “yes” and you start dating and you become a couple, you want to keep the romance out of the office because you don’t want to make your co-workers uncomfortable. So, no hugging, no holding hands, no couple behavior like always sitting together in meetings. You want to preserve some professional boundaries. And if any problems come up in your relationship, they have to stay out of the office, so if there’s tension between you or you have a fight, they can’t come to work with you. And along the same lines if you break up you’ve got to keep being civil to each other.

Here’s a question from listener Joy Carmichael: What do you do if you have an issue at work with your supervisor and they are close friends with the HR director?

Alison Green: This is actually one of the big reasons why good HR people don’t have close friendships work, at least outside of the HR department, which sucks for them but it can make it really hard for people to trust that they’ll be unbiased and a big part of that job is that people need to trust that you’ll be unbiased. I would actually argue it’s unprofessional for an HR person to be best friends with someone at work, at least if they’re in a role where they might need to help resolve issues with that people for exactly the reason the caller is bringing up. But not everyone is perfectly professional, so if you do find yourself in that situation I think first do you want to see if there is someone else and HR you can talk to and it’s okay to be transparent about why. You know you can say I feel a little awkward talking to Jane about this because I know she’s close with Bob. But that’s not a possibility you can also in a lot of cases skip HR and just talk to your own manager or the other person’s manager which is often the best route to take for issues anyway.

Listener David Berman is the CEO of a small company. He’s been talking with his staff a lot since the Harvey Weinstein story broke wanted to know: How can one know if an advance is unwelcome?

Alison Green: Oh, such a complicated question. I think at work you need to err on the side of caution. You know, if you’re not getting clear signals from your co-worker that in advance would be welcome, you just have to err on the side of caution and if you do you ask someone out if you get anything other than a very clear, very enthusiastic yes, assume it’s in no and back off and don’t keep asking, because the person shouldn’t have to continually fend off advances at work. And then again a chain of command, you know never ever, no matter how welcome you think it might be, never ask out anyone in your chain of command in either direction, because of the potential for abuse of power.

David also asked a chain of command related question: Can you imagine telling an employee who is up for a promotion that they would have to end a friendship or relationship that they’d been enjoying for years because they’re now going to be in a leadership position?

Alison Green: That is actually exactly what you do have to do in management positions. It is tough, but you can’t put someone in a position where they’re managing someone who they’re romantically involved. Often even if just a close, close friendship it’s bad for both of them and it’s bad for the company. Best case scenario it’s probably going to lead to the appearance of favoritism. Worst case scenario actual favoritism like the boss not being impartial when it comes to raises or promotions or assignments people being afraid to approach the boss with problems about the person. And it can even lead to legal issues if the employee doesn’t feel comfortable breaking things off because she fears that may affect her standing at work. So it is tough and there are compromises that come with moving into leadership positions. And one of them is about the type of relationships that you can have with people.

Lizzie O’Leary: Obviously we cannot have you on this week without talking about harassment. And to be clear to our listeners, there is a bright line between relationships and harassment, harassment is really about power. As an employee, what is the best way to deal with harassment? This is a huge question but how do you go about thinking about maybe bringing a complaint?

Alison Green: I think a big thing is to trust your gut. Often women and men really doubt themselves in these cases. They worry that they misinterpreted or they’ll be told they’re blowing something out of proportion and harassers often leave just enough plausible deniability that they can claim they didn’t mean a remark the way it sounded and all of that can make people really doubt whether something reportable really took place. I would say trust your gut and speak up if your company has a policy for reporting harassment and you feel comfortable using it report it. And if you’re not sure you do feel comfortable reporting it, but there is maybe a senior woman who you’d be willing to approach, talk to her and talk to people at your own level, too. In a lot of these cases no one says anything and so they don’t realize that a bunch of their co-workers are all experiencing the same thing and they’re just where we see the numbers.

So speak up, do not stay quiet about it. And also know your legal rights. In the U.S., federal law says your company can’t retaliate against you for making a good faith report of sexual harassment and that’s true even if their ultimate assessment of the situation ends up being different than yours. They still can’t retaliate against you for it and they’re required to take complaints seriously. They’re required to investigate. If your company is not following those laws, you can consider talking to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which deals with workplace harassment law, you could talk to lawyer. Sometimes people think talking to a lawyer sounds like a really big step that they don’t want to take, but just talking to a lawyer doesn’t commit you to anything, it just means you’re going to be educated on your rights and your range of options.

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