One of Jennifer Wadella's former coworkers "wouldn't take a hint" that she didn't want to date him. He continually asked her out when she said no and told him she had a boyfriend.
At the time, Wadella, founder and director of Kansas City Women in Technology, said she worked at a large company and sought to be a "community builder," bridging divides between "disjointed" teams. She tried to get to know the coworker and make sure he was included. The first time he asked her out, she turned him down politely and told him she had a boyfriend.
"No harm, no foul," Wadella said.
But it didn't stop there. He asked her out repeatedly for at least a year, she said.
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"It just never really stopped after that where he kind of had this ongoing — obsession is probably too harsh of a word, but definitely would just follow me around," Wadella said.
Wadella's experience is one of many brought to light in the era of the #MeToo movement, a national reckoning that has exposed transgressions by powerful people and brought down media personalities, Hollywood giants and government officials. Its effect on everyday employers hasn't been as clear, but the heightened focus on workplace equity may force employers to revisit their efforts to prevent harassment.
Wadella said she asked her boss to step in and mentor her new coworker so she could take a step back from the relationship. The distraction was irritating she said. She had to spend energy making sure she wasn't "magically leading someone on by just being a good person and being nice to people."
Her experience might have been prevented at another company, like Facebook, where employees are not allowed to ask a coworker for a date more than once.
“We train that if you ask a coworker on a date and they say no, you don’t get to ask again — and beyond that we make it clear that an 'I’m busy' or 'I can’t that night' is a 'no,'" Facebook's global head of employment law, Heidi Swartz, said in a statement.
Wadella said a more proactive policy, like Facebook's, would help. Google, too, encourages its employees to ask for a date just once, the company said.
“I think it’s brilliant, and it sucks that you have to kind of explain boundaries to people," Wadella said.
The unusual guideline, however, differs from most workplace dating policies, which range from prohibition to "date at your own risk."
“I don’t know how you police it," said Jessica Robino, a people and culture manager at Grant Thornton, which has offices in Kansas City and Overland Park. "I mean, I don’t know how you monitor that, especially at a company as large as Facebook or Google. I think that it would be difficult to keep up with.”
Robino is also president of the Kansas City Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. She said she hadn't heard of such a "prescriptive" policy elsewhere.
Sherry Turner, president of the Women’s Employment Network, questioned how managers would define one employee asking out another. Her organization helps women find employment and sometimes fields questions about harassment from job-seekers.
“You could say, ‘Do you want to go have a cup of coffee down at the cafeteria?’” Turner said. “Someone could construe that as asking out when it could be totally related to internal business.”
Though the implementation of a one-ask policy might be a challenge, it could be beneficial for tech companies that may have a high volume of young, single employees, said Brian Huston, an employment attorney for Human Resource Solutions, an Overland Park-based consulting agency.
“Assuming ambiguous answers are the same as being turned down allows the recipient to not burn bridges in the workplace, and, at the same time, puts the power in their hands if they decide they would like to go on a date later on,” Huston said in an email.
A good dating policy, however, has to reflect what's best for the organization's culture, he said. Policies that are too overarching might be a blow to morale, and some workers might be resistant to a policy that invites their bosses into their personal lives, Huston said.
“Our work and personal lives — the line differentiating them is becoming so blurred,” Huston said. “We’re spending more time at the office. We might have work emails on our personal cell phones."
Wadella said an outright ban on office relationships may not be the answer.
“I don’t want to discourage dating in the workplace because you’re going to find people with your common ground, but people need to learn to respect other people," she said. "And no means no."
For employers, however, some workplace romances are largely inevitable. More than a third of members of the workforce have dated a coworker, according to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, and 22 percent of survey respondents reported having dated their bosses. The Society for Human Resource Management pegs the number of employees who have dated a coworker at 24 percent.
"We spend so much of our waking time at work, we do develop relationships," Huston said.
Most companies, Huston said, either don't have a dating policy or have one prohibiting relationships in the event of a conflict of interest, like a boss-employee relationship.
Robino said she most commonly sees "date at your own risk" policies, which means coworkers can date, but have to deal with any awkwardness or perceptions of favoritism that could arise. She said Grant Thornton wouldn't allow relationships between supervisors and their employees or anyone involved in performance evaluation or compensation decisions.
"A lot of companies know it's going to happen, but it still doesn't mean that there's not risk involved," Robino said.
The inevitability of workplace romance and the advent of #MeToo have not yet translated into sweeping changes in workplace dating policy, Robino said. But in the months since the accusations against Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates to claims of abuse, human resources professionals are seeing an increased interest in the issue.
“I think employees feel a little bit more empowered if there’s a situation, and I think companies feel a little bit more vulnerable and are just trying to create some ways that will be supportive of their employee base," said Melissa Shriver, vice president of OMNI Human Resource Management.
Shriver said that can help them manage risk appropriately.
Susan Waldron, director of communications at H&R Block, said the Kansas City-based company is evaluating its policies.
Lisa Belot, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said in an email that the Overland Park-based company has a "robust, strictly-enforced non-harassment policy that it regularly reviews and updates. " It guides employees and prevents misconduct in all workplace situations, not just dating relationships. Belot said the company doesn’t allow supervisors and their employees to date.
Robino said dating policies aren't the only factor in preventing harassment. On that front, companies are looking for solutions.
"But I think one of the big focus points right now is making sure employees feel comfortable coming forward, that they know how to report any incidents of harassment and discrimination and things like that," Robino said.
In tech, Wadella said it is important for workers to feel supported when they report harassment because so many women drop out of the field. She said members come to Women in Technology and talk about their experiences, sometimes wondering if they have experienced harassment or are being too sensitive.
It's important "to have a community where we can have those conversations and push back and say, 'No, this is inappropriate behavior. We shouldn't stand for that,'" Wadella said.