Sex harassment and workplace romance ... Where do we draw the line?

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There’s a new set of “romance and respect rules” emerging in workplaces! 

It’s clear there should be no more slap on the bum, or explicit posters on the wall. But what about a kiss at the Christmas party or the electricity of a sideways look that ends up in a romantic moment?  If you could have your say in shaping the new rules from your experience, what would they look like? 

All of us here lived through an era when workplaces were overtly, uncomfortably and unnecessarily sexual. 

It didn’t worry me so much but I vividly remember posters on the wall of the office of scantily clad women, secretaries who wore see-through tops daily and loved the attention, pats and pinches on the bum from the boss being uncomfortable but not unexpected, discussions of “sleeping your way to a promotion” being very common, out-loud ogling of women at workplace lunches, and rude jokes… lots of very rude, sexually explicit jokes. 

I was a young career-aspiring girl in these difficult workplaces, and my mother always warned me never to comment on the distastefulness, just to try not to get tangled up in it as it would “ruin my career” to be known as a complainer of this nature. Perhaps that is part of the problem. It is clear now that we trained an enormous swathe of Generation X and Baby Boomer women to stay silent and tolerate it, for fear of “ruining their careers”, and for decades that fear was enough. 

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People thankfully started to realise the inappropriateness of these things about 15 years, and much longer, ago. And now, all of a sudden, it is completely inappropriate to be inappropriate. But is it now inappropriate to be inspired to date a work colleague,  or do we have to talk about where the new line should go? 

We’ve seen a shift in workplace correctness that has ultimately led, or been caused by the furores we are seeing around Harvey Weinstein in America and now allegedly, Don Burke in Australia and there’s one thing many have forgotten … work is the place that many people meet their partners. It is the place we go daily where we have something extraordinarily in-common with others around us.  

Surely we want to stop sexually inappropriate behaviour, but not kill off genuine workplace romance.  

According to Vault.com, 49 per cent of people partake in office romances and 16 per cent say they have been in a long-term, serious relationship with a colleague. So what happens if the single people cannot go to work and flirt at the Christmas party?  

So I have to stop and ask today what we want for tomorrow’s workplace.

Is there a new line in the sand we can draw and where should it go? What differentiates genuine person-to-person romantic interest and blatant sexual harassment, particularly if the interest is only one-sided? Would you ask a colleague out on a date these days?