In the post-#MeToo era, it feels somewhat safe to say that everyone is at least slightly confused about how to date at work. Should we all just completely avoid it forever more? Should you never compliment a colleague’s new shirt or haircut again, lest it be misinterpreted as a come-on? What if your new colleague might be your one true shot at love? How do we navigate these choppy waters amid the scrutiny of this intensely focused periscope?
These questions are tricky to answer definitively—everyone has different thresholds and desires and tolerance levels. To many, romance and rules run counter to one another, though breaking the latter can sometimes fuel the fire of the former. That’s essentially the conclusion of a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Can You Still Date a Co-Worker? Well, It’s Complicated.” The well-reported piece offered many interesting tidbits into how different companies manage this minefield, but the one that seems to have stood out is the policy both Facebook and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, attempt to follow:
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.
This seems, to me, to be not only be a pretty reasonable policy but also a quietly radical one. It takes as its premise that asking for permission is the right way to start a romantic relationship, and it bakes in the idea that ambiguity should be interpreted as something closer to “no” than “yes.” Indeed, at its heart, the policy echoes the principles of affirmative consent that so often get their college-age adherents mercilessly mocked—that consent should be energetic and unambiguous.
Encouraging this kind of standard is useful even out of the workplace. One of the policy’s other upsides is that it assumes that both parties are equally capable of knowing what it is they want, and asking for it. It helps eliminate the historically gendered dynamic of “the chase”—a dynamic that assumes a woman ought to demur the first several times that a man asks her out lest she appear too eager, too “easy to get.” It doesn’t forbid a relationship if the first request for a date is denied—it just assumes that people who originally say no are fully capable of doing the asking if they change their minds. Establishing this as a given in our modern dating world could do wonders to both reduce angst and encourage happy consensual pairings.
Will the policy resolve all our office romance woes? Of course not: People are messy creatures. There’s plenty of stuff that it doesn’t address, for example, how to make sure both parties know the requested social interaction is a date, or whether people should be able to ask their superiors or direct reports out (probably not!). But even if you’d prefer your sexual encounters to live in the thrilling middle ground of ambiguity, it seems that we should all be able to agree that when it comes to mixing work and romance, clarity is of particular import. And this type of policy is a great start.