Stirring her coffee slowly, the shy girl from accounting anxiously awaits the new senior guy from sales at the office pantry, like she does every day at 4pm. This is the one time they are certain to “bump” into each other, apart from when he hands her bills to reimburse, or she calls him to check on the tax calculations. When the sales guy finally arrives, he indulges in some coffee-stirring of his own. They talk about work and deadlines and Netflix shows; music gigs and life, all during their tiny ten-minute window before they get back to their desks. This is their routine for some time now.
Underneath the stolen glances and small talk, however, is a silent desire to be more than just co-workers. They get along so well, like Jim and Pam from The Office, like some modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet, she thinks. But this is no Shakespearean fantasy. This is the real world, with complex workplace boundaries to navigate and careers at stake. More importantly this is a post-MeToo world.
A thought that has crossed the mind of every self-aware working man today, occurs to the guy: What if he has “misread” the signs? What if he makes an advance, and she complains to HR? In that scenario, will he also be called out in a #MeToo post on Twitter? This goes on for weeks until the two give up and let their jobs consume them.
The MeToo movement made sure workplace relationships are DoA.
I know all this because I am the girl and the guy is now about to be married to someone his parents found for him. We could have had a great romance, but I suppose now I will never know. Any number of reasons could have kept us apart, but our concerns were not imaginary.
In the last year and half, we have seen powerful men being brought down by strong women who refused to be exploited, in what became a global movement against sexual harassment. From Hollywood biggies to Indian comics, men witnessed what could actually happen if their years of unchecked misogyny were suddenly laid bare. And like most women who have dealt with creeps at the workplace and beyond, I cheered when that happened.
But like most women what I didn’t see coming, is the collateral damage. The MeToo movement made sure workplace relationships are DoA. The men at most workplaces, especially those in positions of power, took a step back, thought harder, and rightly so. They hesitated to approach women, let alone ask one out on a date. This was evident in a survey conducted in the US last year which claimed that the number of office relationships in private sector companies has fallen post MeToo. There are now elaborate rules set by companies to supervise workplace romances; some have made it mandatory for the employees to declare their love interests if it involves a colleague, and some like Facebook and Google have set rules: You can ask a colleague out just once and if this first offer is turned down, there should be no need for another one. Many of these are welcome and necessary moves that ensure safety and transparency at work.
But to say that now colleagues should not consider dating each other altogether, irrespective of how harmless their intentions were, because it can lead to harassment charges if something went wrong, is like saying that we cannot trust anyone with understanding consent.
In a Reuters report on romance in the post-MeToo time Carrie Lukas, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism, says, “Safe romantic gestures – candy, cards, compliments, and flowers – might be construed as aggressive and harassment.” But this is not the point women were trying to make when they called out their sexual harassers. The #MeToo movement, just like every other feminist movement, is not against all men. It was never about one gender fearing the other; it was about men respecting the autonomy of women who work with them.
A relationship could also be used to manipulate the power dynamic.
A workplace romance was never simple; it was always a grey area. When personal life merges with the professional one, there are bound to be some drawbacks, especially if one partner is senior to the other, indicating a power imbalance. A relationship could also be used to manipulate the power dynamic.
But is it fair to view every colleague with the same lens? Not everyone wants to get into a relationship with someone at work because they want some favour out of it or want to exploit them. We live in a world full of cynics, but it might not be such a bad idea to give genuine admiration and love a chance.
It’s not hard to see why workplace romances bloom in the first place. We spend most of our time in offices and by that definition we spend more time with our work colleagues than with anyone else. Two people who share the same experiences are likely to fall for each other. And as long as it is consensual, it is a way better option than hooking up with random people on dating apps hoping for it to turn into something meaningful.
A Wall Street Journal article titled “Is Office Romance Still Allowed?” points out, “Any notion of simply banishing romantic or sexual interactions at work will fail. Too many of us find lovers, partners, and spouses in the setting where we spend most of our waking hours. To move forward from this moment, we must acknowledge not just the awful impact of sexual harassment on women but the reality that the modern workplace is, among other things, a place where romantic overtures are not always unwelcome.”
Sure, there are other places you’d rather go looking for love. There are clubs and bars and house parties and speed dating events, and may be it works for some people. But as someone who has been single for a long time, I can say with some certainty that cupid does not check the city’s event page before striking. He never received the memo that certain places are off-limits. There have been times when I’d have rather dated a colleague I knew a little bit about and saved myself the trauma of swiping on men on Tinder.
I can’t help but wonder: What if I had met the senior guy from sales before the time of MeToo? Would things have been different? I’d probably have been able to find out only if one of us had the courage to ask the other out. But now I’ll never know.
Nidhi Agarwal is a Mumbai-based writer. She loves salsa, both the dance and the sauce.