Workplace

The Truth About Sex at Work


Love and lust at work: Why can't we just talk about it?

Photograph by Getty Images

Love and lust at work: Why can't we just talk about it?

We know that work is a place where people bring their passion, their anxieties, and everything else they’re dealing with at home and elsewhere in life. It shouldn’t really surprise us that people get crushes on their co-workers and sometimes take it to the next level. But we don’t talk about love and lust at work. We don’t acknowledge that people sometimes act on their office attractions, even though it happens all the time.

After I once spoke about this topic at the Bar Association in New York, a partner at a big law firm came up afterward to say that his firm had taken out the security cameras in its stairwells. “We picked up so much sexual activity on the cameras, after midnight, that it was a liability to have the videotape in our possession,“ he explained.

It’s a shame that we don’t have the language (or the cojones) to talk about the things that happen among normal human beings so that we can learn from the situation. We just don’t. (Full disclosure: I fell in love with my husband Michael at work; 20 years later we have five kids, so there must be more to workplace attraction than just a quickie in the stairwell, at least for some people.)

About once a month, I hear from a distressed human resources chief who’s dealing with some kind of amorous shenanigans involving his or her executive team, yet I’ve never seen a handbook titled “What to Do When Your Executives Manifest Their Mid-Life Crises in Physical Ways.” Even that soft-pedaled title might blow a fuse for the don’t-mention-it-maybe-it-will-go-away-on-its-own folks who dispense advice for distressed HR people. Why don’t we deal forthrightly with this issue, which is only to be expected—and by the way, only human? Here’s how I would script a discussion for leaders who want to have a conversation about attraction and relationships without getting into the sticky details.

Acme Explosives Policy on Romance and Work

We hire vibrant and sparky people here at Acme Explosives, so it isn’t surprising that some of them might end up being attracted to one another. The one thing that doesn’t work is when two people who are involved in a romantic relationship also have a reporting relationship. To put it another way, you can’t date your boss or your boss’s boss. That could easily create an unfair relationship, so if you want to date your boss or your boss wants to date you, somebody has to change jobs, either inside the company or to another company.

Apart from that, you can date whomever you like, but please keep the kissy-touchy part of the relationship out of the workplace, for everyone’s comfort. Physical displays of affection between colleagues (whether they are dating or not) are not comfortable for other people. If you want our help navigating a situation that has to do with dating or romantic attraction and your job, please talk with Carolyn in HR. She is an expert at that sort of thing.

I just wish we could expand the conversation to acknowledge that the two worlds we inhabit—the policy-and-rule-driven business world and the messy, sticky, and random human world—really aren’t as distant as we pretend they are.

Liz_ryan_2
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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