Last week, my husband attended a mandatory session on sexual harassment at his work.
Here’s one of the scenarios that came up:
A woman comes to her manager complaining that she's being harassed. A male co-worker has asked her for a date on three separate occassions. Each time she told her co-worker she was busy.
Most of the managers in the room thought the manager should talk to the man and tell him to stop asking the woman for a date. Some thought it best to call HR right away.
I’d advise something different.
Unless the company has a clearly stated policy prohibiting dating between employees, this isn’t a management issue, and it’s certainly not an harassment issue.
The woman hasn’t told the guy she doesn’t want to go out with him, nor has she asked him to stop asking her out.
Failing to take the hint isn’t harassment. (Persisting after a clear “No,” is something different.)
A reasonable person could assume that her answer “I’m busy,“ means just that, with the implication that at another “not busy” time, the invitation might be accepted.
So what would happen if the manager did step in at this point?
Let’s play out the story, with a woman named Sue and a man named Bob.
The manager calls the Bob in, and tells him that Sue doesn’t want to go out with him.
“Wha?” says Bob, “I had no idea. Sue just told me she was busy. I though she was interested, but had other plans.”
The next time Bob sees Sue, he doesn’t know quite what to say. He’s afraid that if he asks her why she didn’t tell him directly that she didn’t want to go out with him, she’ll go to the manager again. Bob starts to wonder what else she isn’t saying to him, but is saying to their manager.
Bob starts tiptoeing around Sue, and soon they aren’t talking frankly about anything—and because they aren’t talking openly about issues related to the work, the work suffers.
The awkwardness between Bob and Sue makes the rest of the team feel awkward, too. Some of the team sides with Bob, believing Sue was unreasonable to go to the boss. Some of the team sides with Sue, believing Bob was a lout not to take the hint.
The entire team suffers.
If HR steps in, the situations ratchets up another notch. The meeting with Bob is two against one and the implied importance is higher. What ever the situation, it’s now “on the record.”
If Sue had turnd down the date with a clear No, Bob might have been disappointed had Sue turned him down directly. He may even have been embarrassed. But both of those responses are less damaging to the team than loss of trust.
If you’re a manager, and someone comes to you with a complaint about a co-worker, don’t get caught in the middle. Coach the person to address the issue directly with the other person involved.
As a manager, you need to become involved when two co-workers can’t resolve an issue on their own, when there's harassment, hostile work environment, ethics issues, or safety issues.
When people solve their problems directly, they build trust and capacity to navigate conflict.
In a previous job, my husband came across the asking-for-a-date situation fairly often. And in almost every case, once the person being asked for a date (either sex) made a clear No, the problem went away. That’s been my experience, too.
That said, I can think of at least one situation where I would step in, after a firm No.
If one person was the source of several unwanted dating requests, I’d talk to that person, but not to say No for someone else. I’d talk to him (or her) about my data: I have three upset team members. I’d describe the impact the behavior is having on the team. I’d make a request for a change in behavior.
(I'm not a lawyer. A lawyer might have a different answer. But I suspect I have different goals than a lawyer might have.)