Watching the recent dust-up at the Capitol, I am struck by how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
The ''inappropriate relationship'' between Sen. Amy Koch and her staff person is high drama because Koch is a high-profile politician. But she is not unique. This is just another embarrassing, too-public reminder that many supervisors still don't "get it."
The imbalance of power between a supervisor (Koch) and a subordinate makes a sexual relationship potentially coercive, not consensual, and consequently can spell big-time trouble.
When power is abused, the distinction between a coercive and consensual relationship is virtually impossible for the parties involved to see. Thankfully we have unambiguous, gender-blind laws against harassment of any kind at work. People have no excuse for not knowing where the legal line is, starting with: Don't mess around with your boss and don't mess around with your employee.
These laws are designed to protect the productivity and fairness of the work environment, not the guy or gal at the top. In the Mad Men-esque days of old, a too-sordid affair that affected the team's performance would be made to go away by dismissing the employee lowest on the organization chart. Not any more. Today, the angels are on the side of the employee with the least amount of power.
Happily, these laws are working. A November 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey reported that only one in four U.S. women have experienced sexual harassment at work, down from one in three in the early 1990s. Also fewer men think they've said or done things that can be construed as workplace sexual harassment -- 10 percent now versus 25 percent in 1994.
Why do we care so much about workplace romance, anyway?
The company is not your Big Brother. And we all know you can't kill Cupid, outlaw love or legislate romance. Stuff happens. In fact, such liaisons are statistically on the rise. (What better place to meet someone than in the workplace?) But don't look up and don't look down the organizational chart for love. Dating a coworker who is a peer is possible, provided the messiness of a breakup does not affect work performance.
So, why are organizations so nervous about workplace romance?
Money. Although a company cannot control matters of the heart, it does have a legitimate interest in the bottom line. The biggest hazard for a company is the potential financial risk of litigation when romantically involved employees directly report to each other. These broken-hearted lawsuits are usually expensive and embarrassing.
If the relationship ends, the subordinate could claim under U.S. federal sexual harassment laws that the supervisor coerced him/her into the relationship. For example: She/he was induced or seduced with promises or threats regarding compensation, work assignments, advancement, or the relationship was continued unwillingly for fear of retaliation or dismissal. Thus, the company could be liable under the theory of quid pro quo sexual harassment. And, there is always the possibility of another employee making a claim that the "paramour" was receiving preferential treatment (e.g. sales leads, bonuses). Even though these may be unfounded, perceived preferential claims, the company is still vulnerable.
What puzzles me is that, despite all the training programs and written policies, some supervisors continue to pursue combustible relationships with direct reports -- and some subordinates still say "yes" when they should put their track shoes on.
What are they thinking? These are otherwise smart people -- why would they choose to take the risks? Is it ego ("We'll be the exception")? Is it excitement ("Forbidden fruit tastes sweeter")? Have they been corrupted (or seduced) by power? President Bill Clinton was asked by a reporter, "Why did you do this? Why did you jeopardize your presidency with this reckless indiscretion with an intern?"
Clinton's introspective reply was chilling: "For the worst possible reason ... because I could."
Given a unique alignment of circumstances that defeated her common sense and better judgment, I'm guessing that Koch understood the risk she was taking but did it anyway. And I presume Herman Cain is still clueless.
I take great comfort in the progress we've made. Office cultures have become less hostile and consequently more productive. This is good news for everyone. When power is not abused, our leaders' credibility and ethical judgment are enhanced, which makes them better leaders.
But we'll never all be perfect. So thank goodness we have laws in place to keep most of us, most of the time, from misbehaving and hurting our organizations and ourselves.