Can a man tell an off-color joke to a female co-worker? Should a woman take offense when an officemate makes a pass? Is it proper for a boss to date a subordinate?
Allegations of sexual advances by President Clinton toward women in the White House have opened up a discussion about romance in the workplace and showed the confusion that exists about how men and women are supposed to interact on company time.Some people think anything that's not against the law is OK. Others find some conduct socially unacceptable even if it's not illegal. Either way, people are searching for practical guidelines on routine office relationships and the inevitable attractions that bloom in the workplace.
Feminist leader Gloria Steinem thinks it's simple: "Commentators might stop puzzling over the president's favorable poll ratings, especially among women, if they understood the commonsense guideline to sexual behavior that came out of the women's movement 30 years ago: No means no; yes means yes."
Kathy Rodgers, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, ticks off a list of workplace do's and don'ts: "Flirting is OK. However, if a woman says to a guy `Cut it out. I'm not interested' and he doesn't stop, that's different.
"Going out to have a smoke is OK. Sitting around in the office is OK as long as the boss doesn't catch you not working," Rodgers adds. "Shaking hands is OK. A congratulatory hug on your birthday is OK."
Ellen Bravo, co-director of "9to5," a national working women's group based in Milwaukee, says many people mistakenly believe that feminist groups advocate an uptight work environment with no-dating, no-joking policies. While 9to5 does discourage affairs between superiors and subordinates, dating and telling off-color jokes are not necessarily seen as a problem.
"What we want is an end to offensive, unwelcome behavior," she says.
But it is hard to know what is unwelcome before it happens. And what is offensive to one person may be acceptable to another.
"There's a lot of walking around on eggshells," says Frederick Lynch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Bravo's organization suggests five questions to guide workplace conduct:
- Would I do this if my significant other were around?
- Would I want someone to do this to my daughter?
- Would I want to be seen on the national news saying or doing this?
- If it's a picture or something visual, would I have it in my house?
- Is what I'm about to do or say likely to make a person feel good or uneasy?
Carmen Pate, president of Concerned Women for America, says the office is no place for romantic relationships between co-workers, period. She says recent high-profile allegations of sexual harassment involving the president and others have added to confusion over what's acceptable.
"The feminist movement has so confused the minds of men. Men don't even know if they're supposed to open the door for women," Pate says. "Women should not have to go to work in fear of being harassed. On the other hand, men should not go to work in fear of being targeted if they tell a women she's looking nice today."