Last fall, at the height of #MeToo, questions inevitably swirled around whether the movement would impact office relationships. Some worried this would mark the end of men and women meeting cute at work, while others thought clear rules were the best way to go given the complicated question of consent when there’s a power imbalance and a career on the line.
Office dating has long been a gray area partially due to a lack of clear rules (and perhaps a lack of enforcement when there are rules), not to mention those who were willing to bend the rules in the name of romance — real or imagined. But it’s also been gray because it’s just plain complicated and no policy can accommodate everyone: What if one employee wants to date at work and another believes it’s completely inappropriate? It’s hard to craft policies that balance all those interests, and one that fosters the safest work environment possible.
It’s also worth asking who these gray areas do and don’t serve: It’s great for those who are afraid of missing out on dating opportunities at work. But it doesn’t serve sexual harassment victims who have historically been collateral damage for other people’s happy endings, and those who were taken advantage of precisely because corporate rules are so blurry. For the victims who couldn’t say, Hey, I said no once already, stop harassing me, and let me do my job, a clear cut policy is ultimately better than none at all.
This week, we saw what may have been one of the first highly public cases where HR rules were enforced in this era of changing norms.
On Thursday, Intel announced in a press release that its CEO, Brian Krzanich, would be leaving the company after an investigation concluded that he had a consensual relationship with an employee. As a result, he had violated Intel’s non-fraternization policy. Krzanich resigned after 36 years at the 50-year-old computer chip company; he had been the CEO for the past five years.
The company is being commended for the speed of its actions: The New York Times reported that Intel moved quickly, removing the CEO less than a week after the relationship came to light. The action seems clear enough: Krzanich violated company policy and therefore had to step down. The 2011 policy he violated wasn’t in place when Kraznich met his wife Brandee, a process engineer, at Intel in the 1990s.
Intel’s policy was instituted well before #MeToo, but in the year since Harvey Weinstein’s downfall led to a number of other high profile men forced to resign in disgrace, a handful of companies have been publicizing their well-defined policies regarding romantic office relationships. At Facebook and Google, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported that employees are allowed to ask a coworker out only once (an ambiguous response counts as a no). Netflix has a similar policy, with the addition that the asker has to avoid the person they asked out if they get no as an answer (which some critics have called 7th grade on steroids).
These companies are anomalies though. In my reporting about office romance last February, the dozens of companies I spoke with admitted that their relationship policies haven’t changed much post-#MeToo. Further, a 2013 SHRM survey found that 54% of HR professionals said their organization does not have a written or verbal policy around workplace romances.
That’s arguably part of the problem. By now, I shouldn’t need to repeat that sexual harassment in the workplace is a reality for so many American workers — an NBC/WSJ poll from October 2017 found that nearly 50% of women have “personally experienced an unwelcome sexual advance or verbal or physical harassment at work.” And in the numerous stories that have surfaced since, time and again the perpetrators were aided by complicit HR departments. The case of Krzanich is interesting because it shows that HR doesn’t have to be complicit if it a) had clear policies, and b) is able to enforce these rules for everyone from entry-level analysts to C-suite execs.
Clear policies bring to mind one question that’s always been relevant in #MeToo: Should there even be gray areas at work? The benefit of having rules is that in a time of changing norms and companies looking forward, the enforcement of the ones that already exist can really make a difference. Because while HR has historically been complicit, maybe it doesn’t have to be.