When is love consensual? When it is accepted and reciprocated without duress. Otherwise, even innocent romantic advances become unwelcome and uncomfortable. The nuances of consensual love are not as black and white as most people assume them to be, and it’s the lack of understanding of these grey areas that often cause people to disregard another person’s consent without even realizing it.
While people understand sexual harassment to be behavior that is unwelcome and inappropriate, what is not widely understood, is that the impact of such behavior is situationally different. For example, in a scenario where an acquaintance or someone you barely know, makes romantic advances, it is not very difficult for a disinterested party to reject them. If these advances are made by a close friend who you have known for years, it is harder to reject, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Similarly, if the advances come from a colleague with whom you work closely, there is a fear of things becoming awkward at work, and hence a lot of thought goes into how best to say no. Now imagine a scenario in which your boss or reporting manager makes this advance. In addition to awkwardness, there is an added fear – of retaliation at work.
In such situations, you start thinking about whether or not to reject them outright. If you do, then how to do so without it impacting your career?
No matter how gently such an advance is rejected, there is always the possibility that subtle forms of retaliation could follow. The question then arises, is a consensual relationship with an employee, who is a subordinate, really consensual? That’s why decoding the dynamics of consensual relationships in the workplace is crucial.
Consensual Relationships In The Workplace – Is Silence Toward Advances Really Consent?
A few years ago, I was part of an inquiry in which a senior leader fell in love with his immediate reportee. Both were married (with children), and the advances were made very subtly in the initial stages. The woman had previously been a member of the organization’s internal committee and understood what was happening but chose to ignore it until the advances became obvious, at which point she gently told him that she was happily married and hence, not interested.
The advances did not stop but changed from an expectation of a relationship to just expressed feelings. These expressions were still uncomfortable for her but she did not want to complain thinking that that would impact his, and her own career. One day, while traveling, the boss sent her a message: “I cannot bear to stay away from you for long because I’m so in love with you”.
Unfortunately, her teenage daughter read this message and showed it to her father, who insisted that a complaint under the POSH Act be filed.
She raised this issue with the Internal Committee Against Sexual Harassment and informed us that she did not want any action taken against him, as she believed that this lapse in judgment should not negatively impact his illustrious career. She just wanted this behavior to stop. When the boss was notified of the complaint, he became immediately defensive, “How dare you call this sexual harassment! My love for her is innocent!”.
I did not understand what he meant by his love being innocent – was he implying that he had no sexual interest in her, or that as long as he was not forcing her to enter into a relationship with him, he was not harassing her? Clearly, the consensual love meaning was lost on him.
Ultimately, after being informed about the difference between sexual harassment in general and sexual harassment at the workplace, he finally agreed to a conciliation. While the situation was resolved amicably, it must surely play on their minds, as it has often played on mine.
Related Reading: How To Tell If Your Boss Likes You Romantically?
The grey area of a consensual relationship with a subordinate
More recently (during the first lockdown), I was asked to consult on another matter in which the head of HR of an organization fell in love with a new recruit who was fresh out of college. He interviewed her personally (something he need not have done), and struck up a conversation with her over WhatsApp in the guise of congratulating her when she was offered a position. The conversations became friendly, and even though they had met only once, within one week he had expressed his love and desire to marry her.
This being the girl’s first job and big break prevented her from telling him to back off. She told him that she was too young and that if he was really serious, then he should ask her when they met in person.
Luckily for her, the opportunities to meet were few and far between due to Covid. At the end of her month of training, she had to visit the office to complete her joining formalities. Being in a position of influence, the senior HR ensured that he was in office at the time that she had to visit, and once she arrived, he asked her to accompany him to his office, as he had a present to give her.
When they entered the lift (he took her to the service lift when he saw that there were other occupants in the regular lift), he tried to hug her and asked her for a kiss. The girl pushed him away and exited the lift at the first opportunity. Two days later, she filed a complaint of sexual harassment at the workplace.
When asked to respond to this complaint, he denied the physical advance (which was almost impossible to prove since it had happened in a lift with no camera or witnesses) and stated that he had no idea that she had not been interested in him, since she had never said no, and had continued to interact with him throughout the previous month. The entire WhatsApp conversation between them was read over by the internal committee.
While it was true that there was no clear rejection, the committee could see a distinct change in the tone of her messages whenever he made any advances. She was usually “busy” when he asked why she was not replying to his expressions of love; she avoided meeting him, or even speaking to him on the phone, and never said anything that indicated that she reciprocated his feelings. She was still friendly and did not say that she was not interested.
Unwelcome Advances Disregard Consent
Such cases are extremely common in workplace settings, and it is a difficult task for internal committees to ascertain whether or not feelings of love or interest are reciprocated. In the first case, the complainant had indicated her disinterest by stating that she was happily married, however, in the second case, this indication was much subtler.
While the second complainant’s rejection was not obvious, her responses did indicate a lack of enthusiasm. When asked why she had not made her disinterest clearer, this complainant told us that initially she had enjoyed the flirtation but had been very taken aback when it turned into an expression of love so quickly and even more shocked when he had proposed marriage to her after having met her only once.
She initially thought that he was jesting, and when she realized that he was serious, she did not know how to let him down without hurting his feelings. Added to that, was the fact that she was still on probation, and no one in that position wants to anger the person who has a final say on their job status. The final straw for her was when he expected their relationship to become physical.
Such scenarios bring to light the difficulties that arise when romantic advances are made in a work setting by persons who are in the position to influence the recipient’s work life. However, it is important for people who find themselves in this position to know that they are not expected to either accept such advances or reject them outright if there is fear or perception of retaliation.
It is, however, important to speak up and report such matters to the organization’s internal committee. The IC’s job is to look for the subtlest of indicators to see whether or not consent was actually given.
Related Reading: 12 Ways Office Affairs Can Spell Trouble For You
How not to err on the wrong side of consensual relationships in the workplace?
So, how can you ensure that you do not disregard someone’s consent in the pursuit of your feelings, especially in a workplace setting involving a senior-subordinate equation? Here are a few tips:
- Consent must be explicit: Consent must be shown enthusiastically and explicitly. Not saying no, or staying quiet does not imply consent or interest
- Subtle rejection: Rejection can be subtle. For example, avoiding being alone with the individual; avoiding personal conversations, while responding enthusiastically when the topic is related to work; or outright ignoring these advances. It is not the complainant’s fault if the respondent does not understand this
- Don’t suffer in silence: Keeping quiet does not help. Such behavior creates a hostile work environment, reducing your productivity, and ultimately hampering your progress. Your leaving the organization to avoid this situation will only adversely impact your own career.
- Amicable resolution is possible: A complaint to the IC does not always result in disciplinary action being taken against the respondent. If the complainant desires an amicable resolution, a conciliation can be facilitated and counseling for the respondent can also be recommended by the IC.
- Unwelcome advances amount to sexual harassment: Yes, THIS IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT THE WORKPLACE. Repetitive unwelcome advances (even if not overtly sexual) can cause mental harassment and a hostile work environment
If you’re attracted to a subordinate, keep these factors in mind to ensure that you’re establishing a consensual relationship with an employee who is a subordinate and not disregarding their consent in any manner, even if unwittingly. If you’re being subjected to unwelcome advances from a senior or a coworker, know that there is legal recourse available to you.