Given the news that has dominated headlines for close to six months now, considering romantic prospects in the workplace feels like a questionable enterprise. But since it’s almost inevitable that two people will hit it off by the water cooler, Google and Facebook have instituted a rule for coworkers who want to date: in short, it’s an affirmative consent standard for workplace romance, which means that colleagues are allowed to ask each other out—once—and if they get any answer that isn’t a straightforward “yes,” it means no.
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“I’m busy” means no. “Not tonight” means no. “I have a boyfriend”—that means no. And the asker has to take that first “no,” or “I can’t make it!” as a no, no matter the qualifications or explanations.
Whether you applaud this development depends on whether you believe people should be asking out their coworkers at all—and whether you think Google and Facebook, two companies that have faced accusations of structural gender discrimination, can even exhibit feminist progress until those situations are rectified. But in the meantime, there’s every reason to believe this specific rule will work for the problem that it sets out to address.
Consensual office romance is not uncommon. According to a 2014 Career Builder survey, 38 percent of professionals have dated a coworker, and of those couples, 31 percent ended up married. Sex between coworkers happens, it will continue to happen, and responsible companies must find a way to allow it to happen while also protecting workers from sexual violation, intimidation, or retribution.
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In the #MeToo moment, we’ve heard copious horror stories about men who used sex as a way to manipulate and abuse the women they work with—accusations that ran the horror gamut from bosses who told female employees their dresses weren’t “tight enough” to men who showed women photos of their penises at work parties. The possibility for sex to become a weapon used against women is too much of a clear and present danger for companies to leave office relationships unregulated. If there are no clear rules about what constitutes inappropriate behavior, then harassment will flourish.
In order for office dating to be genuinely consensual, we have to look at what exactly constitutes consent. Rape culture conditions men to ignore or disbelieve women when they say “no”—and it conditions women not to say “no” in the first place. Call it the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Dilemma, after the world’s most sexually troublesome Christmas song: Men are trained to believe that women are being coy, or are simply too shy or protective of their virtue to admit they want sex, and therefore disregard a woman’s initial refusals as a mere formality. They also hear ambiguity or indirect refusals as “maybe” rather than an indication that they should stop asking. Meanwhile, women are frightened of what will happen if they reject a man too directly or forcefully. (This week, a woman named Molly McLaren was stabbed her 75 times by an ex-boyfriend for dumping him.)
Even if women aren’t scared of being literally murdered by their male coworkers, they may fear exclusion from exciting projects or opportunities or be worried that even the most gentle rejection will earn them a reputation as a “bitch.” The result is that women often find it incredibly stressful to say no to a man—and many men believe it’s their social duty to keep pressuring women unless those women are yelling at them to stop.
In this situation, even the “consent” that does happen is often unhappy and coerced. As psychologist Sandy Pearce wrote in 2014, “some men are trained to persist—to not take no for an answer—until women find it so emotionally distressing they may say yes just to make the pressure stop.” This is especially likely at work, where women need to maintain a friendly professional demeanor, and have extra incentive not to get branded as “cold” or “difficult.”
The one-ask rule reverses the power dynamic, so that the behavioral onus rests, not on the person being asked, but on the person asking. As in affirmative sexual consent policies, it changes the burden of proof: Instead of making it the job of the person who was asked to prove that she (and it is still usually a woman) said “no” clearly enough, the asker must prove that he got a “yes” that would be legible to any reasonable listener.
Of course, this policy assumes that coworkers should be allowed to ask each other out. Many offices outright forbid it—and many women prefer that. What one person perceives as a harmless pass might seem to another like a creepy or even intimidating move. Even “innocent” or polite sexual attention can be unwelcome if it’s pervasive, or if all parties aren’t mature enough to handle hearing a “no.” Treating a female coworker as a romantic prospect can undermine her confidence or suggest that she’s seen more as a sexual prospect than a valued peer. It’s also possible that there will be awkwardness, hard feelings, or even retaliation in the wake of a break up or a firm rejection. People at work are paid to be friendly, and it’s a violation of the unspoken social contract to mistake niceness for sexual availability.
And for those of us who do prefer to work without having sex or romance enter the picture, there’s hope that clear policies around how coworkers should express interest in each other will have a ripple effect. The “one-ask” rule not only places a higher standard on men (and women, too) when it comes to asking for dates, it also may inspire men to think about how “harmless” flirting can be inappropriate or make women uncomfortable.
This isn’t a cure-all, either for workplaces in general or for these two companies. Silicon Valley’s gender imbalance is still endemic, and its culture of harassment and toxicity persists. In April 2017, the Department of Labor found that Google “systematically underpays its female employees,” and in May of the same year, a former Facebook employee published an analysis that female engineers had their code rejected 35 percent more often than male engineers. (Facebook disputed this analysis, calling it “incomplete and inaccurate” and telling employees internally that the information damaged its “recruiting brand.”) Any stipulations around how coworkers should approach romantic relationships will be limited in their effect if women are shut out, demeaned, or discriminated against in other ways.
Still, the rule is good. Yes, men: You can ask your co-workers out. Once. Then you have to stop asking. And, in that blessed silence, maybe we can all just get back to work.