One of the defining characteristics of Western Civilization was the emergence of romantic love, and its association with the Troubadours of the middle ages. This was not an arranged love, but a love of the heart, a forbidden love. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the old French/Provençal spelling of love [and still the spelling for some Latin languages] – Amor – is simply Roma, spelt backwards, the love that the Church denied.
And who knows, perhaps it was this free spirit, the right of individual choice that eventually flowered into a Liberal sentiment that in its classical form rejects the imposition of large institutions on individual liberties. Even in the modern American form of Liberalism there remains a strong sentiment towards individual liberty and expression whether it be in the rejection of stigmas around divorce, the embrace of the LGBTQ community, support for legalized Marijuana, and many other issues.
So what happens when Amor flourishes in the work place? Well one consequence was felt this week when Intel announced its CEO had resigned, not over a current workplace relationship, but a previous one; a relationship that violated Intel’s fraternization policy.
The company I work for has a fraternization policy, and I am glad it does. From the moment I entered the workplace, in another country, it was made clear to me that the very definition of sexual harassment was to have a romantic relationship with a subordinate, because it was well understood to be a relationship that included a significant power imbalance. I was actually surprised when I became aware over recent years that there was not widespread awareness of this principle.
Anyone who has ever been the target of unwelcome advances in the work place knows this is no laughing matter, especially if a very powerful person targeted you. The Intel press release made clear the relationship that led to the CEO’s resignation was consensual, so there is no suggestion there was anything unwelcome about the relationship. What is the big deal then? The big deal is, how would you ever know, for sure. In addition, under California law, an employee can sue a company, after a “consensual” relationship has ended. So businesses have a business issue that extends beyond any additional concerns about creating a positive work environment for all employees, and of course, especially women (but all genders); businesses have a concern that they can never really know when a once consensual relationship might turn sour, and then end in legal action. Since 2005, the number of companies with fraternization laws has increased from 20% to 42%,and in the current #metoo environment, I can only imagine that number going higher.
In a strange and perhaps unintuitive way, for those that focus on purely libertarian arguments, fraternization laws actually do respect Liberal principles, the idea that individual self-determination should be protected from the abuses of power – there is nothing more classically Liberal than that; and for those that remember a time when unwelcome advances towards women were even more commonplace than today, nothing could be more essential; remembering that it was only in 1986 that the U.S. Supreme Court opined that it was against the law for a manager to coerce a subordinate into having sex.
There are plenty of places for people to meet and hook up outside of work, notwithstanding that modern business cultures do demand a great deal of a persons life (though they also compensate well in return for that). Perhaps if people feel they do not have enough non-work time to pursue personal happiness, then maybe that is a sign that they actually do need to get a life.
Maybe the subtlest but most talent impacting issue is the dynamic that is created when the love interest of a powerful person is disagreed with or criticized. How that situation is handled by a powerful person may vary, but if it leads to talented people believing they cannot express their views without being mocked, ridiculed, or otherwise disadvantaged, then that becomes a talent retention issue for businesses as well – another reason for businesses to err on the side of caution.
Love is a beautiful thing, perhaps the most beautiful of things, and when I was growing up, watching shows like “Lost In Space” it was always emphasized as the most quintessential human characteristic, and the one that separated us from other life forms. But as the wellness movement reminds us, in a crazy, email/media/work obsessed world, we have also become a species obsessed with pleasures, and have to some extent lost a grip on what lasting happiness and joy really are; and also a species obsessed with superficial issues, not paying the most attention, to the most important and fundamental issues; this is one of the more fundamental issues, as the Supreme Court made clear in 1986.
The liberty to love vs the protection against the abuse of power – two very Liberal sentiments, pitted against each other in workplace love. These are not simple issues, and barely anything involving sex and love is. But for businesses, the answers are becoming clearer and clearer: protect the company against unwelcome legal actions, protect the company against unwelcome bad press, and create positive work environments so the best talent, of all genders, can be attracted and retained. And of course, for any business, the bottom line is always the bottom line – a business hires people to do the business of the business – that is job#1 – something all Intel employees understand today, and something anyone, working in any business, should never forget.