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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC            Vol. 30, No. 17 * September 14, 1998

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Romance at Work

Dear HR Doctor:
At work, I am very attracted to a subordinate of the opposite sex. I have asked this employee to lunch several times and to dinner and a movie on the weekend. However, my efforts to cultivate a friendship and, hopefully, a romance have not been successful.

What do you recommend?


"Cold Shower"


Dear "Cold Shower:"
From even a preliminary examination, the HR Doctor detects classic symptoms of what could be a serious sexual harassment problem - for you and for the agency.

The basic definition of sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, with a connection to a term or condition of employment. Since you are this other employee's supervisor, the problem is magnified.

You are an "agent" of the county - the lawyers call it "respondeat superior." Therefore, when you engage in this kind of behavior, or you see someone else engage in it and you "walk by" and take no action to interrupt it and stop it, it is the county that is ignoring or condoning or engaging in the practice.

The liabilities can be great. Your own career can be seriously jeopardized and the organization's reputation put at risk. In addition to all this, there is the chance of damages, attorney's fees, the time and expense of an investigation and other problems which add up to bad business, bad ethics, and grounds for very severe discipline.

Your questions suggest that you are pursuing a relationship with a person who does not return your feelings. Clearly, this suggests that the conduct is unwelcome. As a supervisor, you need to understand that you are a role model and that your invitations may carry with them the reality or implication of undue pressure.

Another variant of sexual harassment involves actions which are sexual in nature and have an unwelcome harmful effect on the production of work in the agency. Sexually explicit comments, jokes, drawings and photographs have no place at the office - especially a public office. Even a third party co-worker or customer may find that the atmosphere created as a result is hostile and gets in the way of the public's business.

As manager, your job is to prevent a hostile environment from forming at work and certainly not to practice it yourself.

For you personally, the HR Doctor recommends that you cease the conduct immediately, disclose what you have been doing to your supervisor and assure that person that the conduct has stopped and that it will not recur.

Your supervisor may wish to speak to the employee involved to ensure that he/she understands your commitment and to determine if any other steps should be taken, such as possibly reassigning you or your subordinate to make sure that the maximum possible comfort level or feeling of security on the part of your subordinate has been restored.

For the agency, reports or disclosures of sexual harassment must be taken extremely seriously and the agency must respond immediately. "Immediately" does not mean a month or a year later - it means right now.

The Supreme Court has helped provide guidelines for agencies to follow to prevent, stop and reduce liability for sexual harassment. Take a tip from the "Supremes" and

  • have a strong, written policy prohibiting sexual harassment, and making its prevention a top organization priority.
  • disseminate the policy widely and conduct aggressive training for all employees and especially managers.
  • include in the policy a clearly written complaint procedure which ends with a decision-maker who has the power to correct problems and administer discipline.
  • Include in the procedure an immediate responsibility for managers to disclose to the designated investigator of complaints all situations which might reasonably be construed to be sexual harassment.

The investigator and the manager need to consider the matter from the standpoint of a "reasonable victim." This is important since the sensitive administration of sexual harassment prevention policies requires the manager to put him/herself in the shoes of the victim to see things from the individual's vantage point; and

  • include in the procedure a "freedom from retaliation" component, which protects the victim or the party who reports the sexual harassment in good faith from disciplinary action.

The HR Doctor recommends that the agency develop a related program involving help for the victims of domestic abuse. Not only is domestic violence or abuse something that can easily spill over to the workplace and should be covered under the agency's workplace violence program, such domestic problems may also appear at work in the form of unwelcome sexually related activity. This may be especially true if a "broken" domestic relationship involved two people who are both employees.

Finally, be aware that sexual harassment may very well involve a female harasser and a male victim or a victim and a perpetrator of the same gender. It is the manager's responsibility to be sensitive to this possibility, as well.

The HR Doctor realizes that office relationships, including friendship and romance, occur regularly within a group of hard-working and bright human beings. There is a line, however, which must not be crossed and the manager must be the gatekeeper. The line is exceeded when the conduct of one party is unwelcomed by others and disturbs the conduct of the public's business.

Managers make a big mistake when they fail to enforce county policies or when they "walk by" complaints. Office relationships are complicated, but by following these tips from the HR Doctor, you can avoid a situation where you cannot even go to lunch with a colleague without taking a lawyer with you.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor



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