The US approach to office romances is a world away from Canberra's

 abc.net.au  2/15/2018 4:48:38 AM   Elizabeth Tippett

Updated February 15, 2018 15:31:35

When questioned about his relationship with Vikki Campion, Barnaby Joyce responded: "I think you have to make a distinct decision to not turn Australia into the United States of America."

Which raises the question, how might a similar situation be handled here in the United States? Not just in a political context, but also employers in the private sector.

American political handwringing over consensual affairs peaked in the 1990s, when president Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

By contrast, recent news of President Donald Trump's settlement with adult film star Stephanie Clifford lasted only a few days.

The United States is too busy dealing with various forms of unwanted sexual attention revealed during the #MeToo movement.

Senator Al Franken resigned for alleged groping. Another politician, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, resigned after asking female staffers to bear his children as surrogates. A third, Blake Farenthold, was accused of retaliation by a staffer who rebuffed his advances.

Congress has also been settling harassment and discrimination lawsuits at taxpayer expense since the old rules did not require politicians to pay for the settlements themselves.

The United States Congress has grappled with its own scandals since the #MeToo movement, revealing that politicians had spent some $17 million of taxpayer funds over the past 20 years to settle harassment and discrimination claims.

Several politicians also resigned or agreed not to seek re-election in the wake of harassment allegations.

The US House of Representatives recently passed two bills to address the problem, overhauling an unfair system to handle congressional harassment complaints and prohibiting politicians from using public funds to settle them.

The legislation also prohibits politicians from "engag[ing] in sexual relationship with any employee" working under their supervision.

Congress would seem to be following the lead of private employers that have adopted employee dating policies (also known as non-fraternisation policies).

A 2013 survey found that 42 per cent of US employers had adopted some type of policy relating to workplace relationships.

When workplace relationships sour

American employers are queasy about workplace dating for fear of harassment liability. Workplace dating on its own is not harassment. (To qualify as harassment, the conduct must be unwelcome.)

But employers worry about what might happen if the relationship sours.

If the spurned partner continues to pursue the employee after they are rejected, the behaviour can become harassment — conduct that is "objectively hostile or abusive" and motivated by the recipient's gender.

This is especially so if there is a power differential between the couple, where one party is much higher on the corporate ladder than the other.

(A recent example would be the relationship between Seven West Media boss Tim Worner and his one-time executive assistant Amber Harrison, which ended with her leaving the company and launching legal action.)

If a supervisor threatens to punish an employee in the workplace for rejecting his advances, it's a ready-made lawsuit.

Why female staffers come off second best

Employers have various ways of dealing with workplace relationships, none of which are perfect.

Policies might require employees to disclose any romantic relationships with other employees.

If one of the employees is a supervisor, the employer might ask them to sign a document stating that the relationship is voluntary and that they will "allow the end of this relationship to negatively impact our performance." (Yes, it's true, Americans will try to use legal documents to solve anything.)

These agreements aren't really for the benefit of the employees. They mostly serve to create a paper trail in case the subordinate employee later claims the relationship was not voluntary.

Alternatively, employee dating policies might prohibit employees in a supervisor/subordinate role from dating.

Should they enter into a relationship, the employer might transfer one of the employees so they are no longer in a reporting relationship. Or they will require one of the employees to quit.

This approach also has problems. The subordinate employee will face greater pressure to transfer or quit. And more often than not, it's a woman.

Congress rules target politicians, not staffers

The new Congressional rule, which prohibits members of congress from dating staffers, is unusual because it applies only to the supervisor.

It is the member of Congress, not the staffer, who commits an ethical violation by entering into a relationship and faces potential sanction from the ethics committee.

Given the kind of misconduct we've seen in the American legislature, it probably makes sense.

If politicians think relationships with their staffers are allowed, they're more likely to proposition them. And in a legislature that is 80 per cent male, it is female staffers that would otherwise bear the brunt of the persistent unwanted attention.

In other words, harassment.

Elizabeth Tippett is an associate professor a the University of Oregon School of Law, and faculty co-director of the Master's program for conflict and dispute resolution.

Topics: work, joyce-barnaby, relationships, federal-parliament, donald-trump, world-politics, sexuality, united-states, australia

First posted February 15, 2018 15:29:48

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