Labor harassment attorneys Brandy Cody and Clarence Belnavis from Fisher Phillips weigh in

Love is in the air this Valentine's Day, but less so at the office in the age of the #metoo movement. According to a CareerBuilder survey, dating in the workplace has now hit a 10-year low.

"This is a land mine for both sides: with traditional gender role bias, how things have gone historically, we expect men to be pursuers and women to be pursued," said Fisher Phillips attorney Brandy Cody. "We expect men, when they're attracted to somebody, they ask."SOURCE: DREAMSTIME - Do you have your eye on someone at work, but are unsure of how to approach a professional colleague about a romantic relationship? Heres a quick guide on how to be an ally in the age of #metoo and get a date — without jeopardizing both your careers.

Cody represents employers in employment law and litigation including harassment and discrimination, and provides advice on family workplace matters.

"The amount of media attention being paid to the #metoo movement and some of those really egregious examples — the Harvey Weinsteins of the world — people are understanding that those uncompromising positions in the workplace are not going to be tolerated by businesses, society, the media," Cody said. "The fact we're all talking about it, all paying attention, it's forefront in everybody's mind and creating a lot of public discussion, whether people are readily absorbing it or not. If it's out there long enough, people will eventually, hopefully, for their own self-preservation, capture some of the anecdotes they heard."

There is a grey area when it comes to dating in the workplace, and emotional intelligence plays a key part — luckily, it is a learned skill.

"I've heard some people are missing the sensitivity shift, they don't know what signals they're reading, and are reading what they want to read instead of what is actually being communicated, and by the very nature that we're human we communicate differently," Cody said. "My body language might feel like a 'no' to somebody and might feel like a 'yes' to somebody else, and who knows what I intend unless I speak it? Women have to stand in power in the workplace and address it wherever you feel comfortable."

If that's directly with the problem person, or with human resources, or a trusted supervisor, speak up and come forward.

"(That) will make sure you are protected from future advances," Cody said. "This is top of mind for businesses, and they're trying to act on whatever information employees are willing to share with them — so it's sort of incumbent on somebody in the workplace to tell them."


"It can certainly be useful so the employer knows, and puts the dating employees on notice that we're aware this is a consensual relationship," Cody said. "To the extent that changes and it's no longer consensual or there's a problem in the workplace, we're trusting you to notify us so we can take the appropriate steps to make sure nobody is harmed in the workplace on either end."

From Cody's personal experience, she's had clients who don't always want their employer to know about their relationship. CareerBuilder also found 37 percent of employees admit to dating a co-worker, and 33 percent of those romances led to marriage — but 41 percent of workers kept their romance a secret, which can lead to problems.

"The first step is getting people to admit they're having a relationship so you can institute a love contract or policy to shield everyone from liability," Cody said. "The first issue is getting people to be honest about their dating in the workplace; the second issue is appropriately documenting it and communicating expectations to both sides — if anything becomes unwanted, we're counting on you to come forward."SOURCE: FISHER PHILLIPS - Attorney Brandy Cody, partner in both Portland and San Diego, represents employers in employment law and litigation including harassment and discrimination, and provides advice on family workplace matters.

She said the general advice she gives people is if you're not a jerk, you can't go wrong.

"If somebody asks somebody out on a date, and you get the slightest hint of hesitation, if you're reading any body language that might not be 'hey I'm totally into this,' and no indication leading up to that that might be somebody who might be interested in you, don't be a jerk and make somebody say no to you in the workplace, and see you on Monday, and everyone feels uncomfortable," Cody said.

If you're picking up signs of flirtatiousness (fashion choices do not count), give it a shot — and if they say no, don't push the issue.

"If everybody can communicate like adults and be sensitive to everybody else's position, we'd have fewer of these problems," Cody said. "Expecting people to be mind-readers or all-capable of understanding unspoken words and thoughts, or your impact on somebody if you repeatedly asked them out and made them uncomfortable, is pretty insensitive."

Some people are dealing with the old norms and think those ground rules are still in effect.

"There's a fair amount of denial, not everybody is as woke as we want them to be," Cody said. "We're clearly living in an evolving society and understanding more of the subtle implications to unwanted advances that are awkward to turn down, so I think that there are some men and women who are going to be more sophisticated at handling the situation. Our responsibility is to continue to train and show by example."

Employer legal advice

Employers can have a say in terms of outlining appropriate policies, which can make a big difference in the safety of all of their employees' careers.

"Make sure from a business perspective you're doing everything you can to make sure all employees in the workplace feel included and heard, and no one's uncomfortable to the extent possible by encouraging employees to come forward when there is a problem so it can be addressed," Cody said.

The current advice for employers is renewing the sexual harassment program, since it's such a hot topic and so volatile.

"Supervisors are the first line of defense," Cody said. "Make sure those people are appropriately trained so when they're approached with a complaint, they don't just blow it off and say, 'that doesn't offend me, so I'm going to leave it at that.'"

Cody said she saw an unfortunate client experience where an employee continually kept trying to ask another out and wouldn't stop showing up at their house with flowers.

"It makes people feel uncomfortable even though it's nothing threatening or violent, it's just a boundary issue of 'I don't feel comfortable any more, every time I see this person this is where they go with the situation,'" Cody said. "It's unsettling to anyone to have to say no over and over again."

Be a C-suite ally

Attorney Clarence Belnavis, a Fisher Phillips partner in the Portland and Seattle offices, is an employment litigation specialist with the labor and employment law firm. He writes up love contracts (not a prenup, but company policy) and guidelines for companies and their dating employees. He said the main thing is for employees to disclose the situation to the employer, so they can help frame the relationship's workplace dynamics — especially if things go sour.

"Love contracts apply to something more formal, but the reality is people just date in the workplace," Belnavis said. "Because people date in the workplace, it can be really ugly if for some reason when people break up — even married folks in the workplace — when they have a divorce or things don't go as planned, and that happens on occasion, these love contracts and more consensual agreements or acknowledgments are active things employers do when they sit down with folks in advance, and say yes, here's our anti-harassment policy, here's what we expect from people in the workplace, and if you have any issues or concerns, here's how you address it."SOURCE: FISHER PHILLIPS - Attorney Clarence Belnavis, a Fisher Phillips partner in the Portland and Seattle offices, is an employment litigation  specialist with the labor and employment law firm.

This way, in the case of people behaving inappropriately in the workplace, the person who feels unfavorably treated knows how to address the situation.

"More importantly from the employer standpoint, they document that they reminded folks of it," Belnavis said. "It becomes not only assistance to those folks who go through breakups or someone acts badly, but it also helps employers because if no one raised those issues or concerns, we can't solve it."

Love contracts are unique to the couple and workplace, depending on circumstances and culture, but generally take into consideration employee handbook policies already prohibiting discrimination.

Subordinate-supervisor relationships

"It really is impossible to preclude (subordinate-supervisor dating), inhibit it or make it forbidden in the workplace," Cody said. "The most an employer can do is remove people from having authority over somebody they're dating — change the line of power, have somebody else make decisions about compensation and discipline and promotions, pay scale, that kind of thing — somebody other than the person they're dating that creates its own inherent bias."

In general, people spend more time at work with coworkers than with family, pets or friends, so it's natural connections will form.

"Folks tend to meet a significant other in the workplace often, and there are many different ways in which these issues come up," Belnavis said. "I have seen a lot of situations in which people used to date, and then one day break up, and then one person behaves badly and uses work as a way of getting back at the other person, which is not appropriate."

In those situations, the whole workplace might take sides and become polarized.

Workplace appropriateness

"Sexual harassment is wrong and improper," Belnavis said. "In addition, lots of policies prohibit you from dating someone you supervise: you can't supervise someone you're married to, or something along those lines. Remind folks, hey this is not OK."

He stressed the importance of going to HR if an employee believes they are being treated negatively in the workplace because of gender or any protected status.

"(Say) there are different ways in which we can report your issues or concerns. Then promise people you'll treat them with dignity or respect," Belnavis said. "If an issue is raised, the employee should take time to investigate and take time to be heard."

He said the last bit is really important because studies show it's not uncommon for survivors to say, "this happened to me, but I was afraid of retaliation in the workplace and didn't speak up."

"You want folks to know in addition to anti-harassment, there's an anti-retaliation process," Belnavis said. "If you bring up issues and concerns, you should do that without fear that someone is going to retaliate."

For example, Larry Nassar used his status as a doctor to sexually violate hundreds of young professional athletes, whose careers were directly affected by him in a professional setting.

"Any good HR professional looking at these issues will tell you, you have to take everybody at face value," Belnavis said. "You can't discount somebody just because they brought an issue to you, you have to take it seriously — that's HR 101, just good legal practice. Organizations should be doing that."

And they should implement multiple ways in which to report issues, in case the first avenue shuts them down or is the problem in the first place.

"It's not uncommon for big organizations for example to have an anonymous phone line, ethics line," Belnavis said. "I've helped companies set up an email account that goes to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., which is an HR mailbox where issues can be raised with them."

Some companies have issues go to an operations manager, or other solutions, depending on the firm's size.

"If one employee asks another employee out, and the second person is not interested, leave it alone, let it go," Belnavis said. "Always be a lady and always be a gentleman in how you do it from this perspective: you're going to be judged under anti-harassment based on the language you use. If you're profane, even if it's the one time you asked somebody out and they said no, you can still lose your job because of how you handle the situation."

By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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What not to do

Patrick Witty, former National Geographic deputy director of photograpy who also won a 2009 Pulitzer as part of a New York Times team, told freelance photographer Emilie Richardson that he liked to mentor young women when the two were at a friend's birthday party in 2014.

That's according to the Vox article that published the reason ("predatory sexual behavior") Witty left National Geographic in December 2017, which ran before Nat Geo decided to tell its own employees why he was gone. That's an example of men in power protecting other men.

Richardson said she was frustrated with the unwanted attention, and said to him at the time, "If you like mentoring young women so much, why don't you hire more?"

Witty allegedly flew into a rage, yelling, "Maybe if they could shoot as well as James Nachtwey, I would," referencing the famed Time war photographer. "Some people matter in this industry, like me, and some don't, like you."

It ended with him saying: "You're never going to work for Time magazine."

While more than 20 women have spoken out with sexual harassment allegations against Witty, including forcible kissing and blacklisting those who don't consent, his lawyer has since issued an apology stating he is "deeply sorry that some of his past behavior hurt women."

Witty resigned after being exposed, but so far, no legal action is being pursued.

Read the Vox article here:


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