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HR Departments Won’t Stop Harassment by Banning Sex

Sarah Green Carmichael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Mark Wiseman, who was seen by many as a likely heir to BlackRock Inc. Chief Executive Officer Larry Fink, is now out of a job. The details we have are scant. In a memo, Wiseman explained: “I am leaving BlackRock because in recent months I engaged in a consensual relationship with one of our colleagues without reporting it as required by BlackRock’s Relationships at Work Policy.”

An additional wrinkle: This consensual relationship was also an extramarital affair. Wiseman is married to Marcia Moffat, head of BlackRock’s Canadian division.

Coming on the heels of Steve Easterbrook’s ouster as CEO of McDonald’s Corp. for a consensual relationship with an employee, comparisons are bound to be made. But the two cases are different, and while a line back to the #MeToo movement will inevitably be drawn, let’s be clear: Neither of these cases involve allegations of sexual harassment or assault.

Both cases are about violating company policy – BlackRock’s rule that relationships must be disclosed, and the McDonald’s rule that no boss can date a subordinate, direct or indirect. Companies can’t let senior leaders get away with violating the rules they’re asking their employees to follow.

The question we should be asking, then, is not whether workplace relationships are wrong, but whether HR edicts seeking to control them are a good idea.

Such policies seem to have sprung up like mushrooms after the spring rain of #MeToo. The problem is that that they seek to do away with the “harassment” part of sexual harassment by controlling the “sexual” part. That’s wrongheaded.

In fact, the whole post-#MeToo conversation has focused a little too much on sex. (I suppose it’s natural; we’re only human.) In the aftermath of that movement, I fielded somewhat panicked questions from men about whether it was OK to ask a cute co-worker out for coffee or compliment a colleague’s outfit. Such innocent overtures were never the problem.

Yet in this overheated environment, corporate HR departments seem to have decided that the best way to protect their firms from liability, and perhaps clarify some matters for a few confused men, would be to draw a bright line: No sex with colleagues. Or: No sex with colleagues less powerful than you. Or: No sex with colleagues, or colleagues less powerful than you, unless you tell HR about it. (And what could have a more libido-deflating effect than imagining that particular meeting?)

This all seems needlessly Victorian – and tough to implement besides. When exactly are you supposed to disclose your new paramour to HR? Do you need to ask your boss’s permission before you start flirting? Do you have the “Are we boyfriend and girlfriend?” conversation before or after the “Are we HR official?” chat?

The fact is, Americans work long hours, and lots of us are obsessed with our jobs. The more time we spend at work, the less likely it is we’ll meet someone outside corporate HQ. Estimates vary, but a significant number of people meet their spouses at work.

With work and sex both being fairly central parts of the human experience, it’s inevitable that they’ll occasionally overlap. And it’s really none of HR’s business, though I realize they always like to have a seat at the table.

Moreover, as such assortative mating increases and two-career couples become more common, more companies see recruiting top talent as a double act rather than a solo show. In high-flying careers where relocation is the norm, it’s no longer unusual for organizations to recruit both members of a power couple.

That development represents progress for women, who are still much more likely to be the trailing spouse. If HR departments seek to ban sex, I worry it will curtail this promising development.

HR departments don’t need to ban sex (impossible) in order to ban harassment (imperative). They should focus less on prurient details and more on punitive tactics. Colleagues shouldn’t bully, coerce or browbeat each other, regardless of whether such behavior has a sexual undercurrent. Company policies that clearly delineate what constitutes harassment and protect employees would have a much better result than attempts to track their sex lives.

To contact the author of this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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