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Can You Still Date a Co-Worker? Well, It's Complicated

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/7/2018 Yoree Koh and Rachel Feintzeig

Is it still OK to date someone you work with?

Yes.

Well, actually, it depends.

You might need to disclose it.

Or maybe even sign a “love contract.”

So, really: It’s complicated.

U.S. companies are trying to keep romantic relationships from spiraling into a risk factor. The national conversation on sexual harassment and abuse of power has galvanized a wider discussion about whether consensual office relationships are OK.

In early January, four women at Asana—three from human resources and one from marketing—gathered around an oversize conference table to tackle the San Francisco-based software startup’s first-ever dating policy. As they looked up at a large-screen projection of the document, the women labored over how to define a workplace romance, tweaking it and deleting phrases that described it as a mutual attraction between two employees.

The group also grappled with the question of when employees who are not each other’s managers should disclose a relationship. What about a one-night sexual encounter? No, that felt too intrusive. What if they have gone on several dates, but it was still not a committed relationship? Anna Binder, Asana’s head of people operations, suggested that employees might casually inform someone in human resources but not formally record it.

“I want to be reasonable,” Ms. Binder said during the meeting. “I just don’t want to be policing every kiss.”

Over the last decade, the share of workers who say they have ever dated a colleague has hovered around 40%, according to an annual survey from CareerBuilder. In its survey conducted at the end of last year, the share dropped to 36%, a 10-year-low, from 41%, a 10-year high in 2016.

Many companies have long had policies discouraging relationships between managers and direct reports, human-resources experts say. But some employers are starting to review their rules and are now “drawing a hard line in the sand,” said Doug Smith, managing principal of law firm Jackson Lewis’ Pittsburgh office.

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Mr. Smith said he has had a dramatic increase in employer clients calling about sexual-harassment policies since September. He is recommending that they put strict rules in place barring managers from dating anyone further down in the organization, with firing as a potential consequence. He said every company he makes the recommendation to is following suit.

“They’re moving very quickly to get it on the books,” he said.

Chatter about dating at work on Fishbowl, a social-media network for consulting, advertising and other professionals, increased in the last three months of 2017, the company said. Some employees chatting on the platform said they had started shying away from office banter or complimenting colleagues on their appearance. Others said they weren’t changing their behavior at all, stressing that they are adults who understand how consent works and know the difference between harassment and asking someone out on a date.

The line between collegial and romantic interest can be especially fuzzy at large tech companies where employees skew young and perks like free meals, on-site gyms and hair salons compel workers to spend more time on corporate campuses.

One rule at Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google: Employees are only allowed to ask a co-worker out once. If they are turned down, they don’t get to ask again. Ambiguous answers such as “I’m busy” or “I can’t that night,” count as a “no,” said Heidi Swartz, Facebook’s global head of employment law. At Facebook, if a potential date involves a person in a more senior position than the other, the date itself doesn’t necessarily have to be disclosed to HR. Facebook says it trusts its employees to disclose a relationship when there is a conflict of interest. Failure to do so will lead to disciplinary action.

But real life is never as cut and dry as the scenarios that appear in sexual-harassment training modules.

“I didn’t know if people were asking me out or not,” said Anna Wood of her four years working at Google until 2015. Ms. Wood, now the founder and CEO of Brains Over Blonde, a feminist lifestyle platform, recalled finding herself on accidental dates where she thought she was going to happy hour for a drink with a co-worker, but her companion meant it to be a date.

A Google spokesman said the company has had a dating policy since 2004.

Some human-resources experts said excessive rules around relationships can be tough to enforce and make it hard for companies to attract and retain talent.

Jacqueline Breslin, director of human capital services at HR outsourcing firm TriNet, said that toward the end of 2017 she started receiving a flurry of questions about so-called love contracts—in which a couple agrees to behave professionally at work and acknowledges they weren’t coerced into the relationship. She suggested her clients, small and medium-size businesses, “tread with caution.”

The documents “can feel very invasive and intrusive and may turn off some really great performers,” she said. Such love contracts remain rare.

Asana says the need for its policy has more to do with its growing size than angst over the recent raft of sexual-harassment allegations. The 10-year-old startup has grown to just over 300 workers, among whom there are currently five romantic relationships.

“There are going to be gray areas when you put human beings in a building together,” said Ms. Binder. “Clarity helps people navigate and make good decisions.”

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