Geoff Marcy


Last week, sexual harassment allegations surfaced against renowned UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy.  Four women alleged that Marcy repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.  Isn’t it time we start teaching employees how to get consent prior to making advances?

With all the time that coworkers spend together it’s natural that some romantic attraction will surface.  Research shows that mere repeated exposure to another person increases our attraction to them.  And in the workplace, coworkers are likely to share common interests as well.  As a result, sparks tend to fly, and about half of employees report that they have participated in a workplace romance at some point in their career.

Despite the high numbers of employees who are fraternizing at work, very few organizations provide guidelines for their employees on how to professionally navigate these relationships.  Instead, most policies simply discourage employees from developing romantic or sexual interest in their coworkers.

Workplace romance gets especially complicated, because sexual advances are only considered sexual harassment if they are unwelcome.  One of the most common questions regarding sexual harassment involves just this distinction – “How do you know if sexual attention is unwanted unless you try?”

Indeed, this was the defense of former San Diego mayor Bob Filner.  Twenty women felt his alleged sexual advances were unwelcome.  One alleged victim of his come-ons described to KPBS News that Filner “reached over to kiss me, I turned my head, and at that moment, on the side of my face, I got a very wet saliva-filled kiss including feeling his tongue on my cheek.”  Filner blamed his actions on hubris.  In other words, he thought his kisses and gropes would be welcomed.

So, how do employees determine if their sexual advances are desired? Get consent.  If the allegations against them are true, a simple “Can I kiss you?” would have saved Bob Filner, Geoff Marcy and their victims a lot of headaches.  But, do employees know how to obtain consent?  Sadly, many don’t.

Employees need to learn how to signal their interest and gain acceptance before asking for dates or sex or kisses or anything romantic or sexual in nature.  In lieu of having employees go in for the awkward grope, the uncomfortable kiss, or the unwanted touch, employees should have a professionally accepted way to garner pre-approval.

Individuals could no longer suggest that provocative dress was a signal of consent or that a coworker was sending signals suggesting sexual interest.  Interest would have to be confirmed.

If consent is declined, then the employee must accept this conclusion and cannot repeat the invitation. A response of “no” would have to mean no.  While obtaining written consent may take some of the romance out of the early phase of a relationship, having the consent on paper will also serve to protect the organization and the couple from legal hassles.

Consent needs to become the policy when it comes to workplace romance.  And organizations need to step up to help their employees navigate these often awkward interactions.

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