Pam and Jim. Sam and Diane. Barack and Michelle.
America loves a good office romance. According to a 2017 study from The Knot, more than 10% of couples say they met at work. In the “Mad Men” days, mothers urged daughters to pick their careers for the husband potential.
But in the wake of a nationwide reckoning on sexual harassment, many workers are rethinking their relationships and interactions at work.
According to Joyce van Curen, a retired HR director and member of the expertise panel at the Society of Human Resources Management, few employees think to question their own behavior on the front end. They instead wait until something like a Harvey Weinstein scandal hits, and then suddenly everyone worries how their words or actions could be interpreted.
“During times like this, you get a lot more concern,” van Curen says. “‘When does it become harassment?’ ‘When do I say something?’ ‘Who do I say it to?’ And a lot of those questions come from men.”
A recent essay from Slate’s executive editor, Allison Benedikt, detailed the beginnings of her own office romance (now marriage). The events look a lot like the opening pages of any recent sexual harassment revelation: her husband was her (then) boss; he flirted at work for months; he kissed her first (without asking).
The key, she argues, is making sure the feelings are reciprocated.
“It is even OK to be grossed out by someone’s advances, as long as those advances stop once you make clear you aren’t into it,” she writes.
But other experts take it a step further. You also need to consider the potential consequences of carrying on an office relationship, and what could happen if things don’t work out.
It’s not that you can’t date in the office, says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman. It’s that you have to do research beforehand, thinking about both the company policy and your own expectations of the relationship.
“We have to think about the end from the beginning,” Gottsman says. “First and foremost, have a conversation with yourself. ‘How is this going to pan out?’ Think about what it’s going to do to you emotionally and even to your reputation. ‘What’s going to happen if it doesn’t work out?'”
This means if you’re the date-asker, you need to include an “out” so the other person can refuse politely. In most workplaces, van Curen says, a one-time ask won’t violate a sexual harassment policy — unless it keeps happening.
And if you’re the one being asked, you need to give a firm “yes” or “no.”
“Oftentimes, when we’re uncomfortable and we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, we send mixed messages,” Gottsman says. “And no time has it been more important than to send a clear message of ‘no.'”
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Joyce van Curen as a member of the dignity panel at the Society of Human Resources Management. She is a member of the expertise panel.