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Should Companies Ban Workplace Relationships To Deter Harassment?

This week, Greylock Partners dismissed its COO for carrying on an “inappropriate”–albeit consensual–relationship with an employee. Was it the right call?

Should Companies Ban Workplace Relationships To Deter Harassment?
[Photo: Helen King/Getty Images]

When the sexual harassment allegations against Justin Caldbeck surfaced in late June, one of the first Silicon Valley figures to speak out publicly was LinkedIn founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman. In a LinkedIn post, Hoffman wrote that, given the power dynamic, even a consensual relationship between an employee and manager was inexcusable:

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If a manager propositions his employee and defends his behavior by suggesting it’s just “two consenting adults,” what do we think? Outrageous and immoral behavior that ignores the power relationship.

Greylock seems to be practicing what Hoffman preaches. This week, The Information reported that Greylock’s COO, Tom Frangione, had been asked to resign last month when the firm “learned of some behavior that would represent a significant lapse of judgment.” Frangione had reportedly entered into an “inappropriate” relationship with an employee, though according to Axios, the relationship was consensual.

“Within three days of first hearing the claims, we investigated, asked for Tom’s resignation, and he agreed,” Greylock told Fast Company in a statement. And that’s not all:

We care deeply about our team and about having a positive work environment. We have already taken immediate and specific action with regard to HR, including bringing on an HR lead, and establishing a 3rd party point of contact for Greylock employees. We are also training our entire team, and formalizing our broad code of conduct policy. 

The decency pledge did what it was designed to do. It made people feel safe coming forward with information about unacceptable behavior. We are grateful to the team members who came forward because it allowed us to act on the matter swiftly.

It’s clear Greylock acted swiftly in part because of Hoffman’s public stance, but also because of the very public discussion of Silicon Valley culture wrought by Caldbeck–who resigned in June after reports that he sexually harassed multiple women and that his behavior had been something of an open secret in Silicon Valley.

In contrast, Greylock’s response was a conscientious one, and one that indicates that Hoffman and the firm mean what they say. But it also raises questions about romantic relationships in the workplace, whether they can coexist alongside workplace power dynamics and whether they should be welcome in the workplace at all.

Hierarchy Matters

It goes without saying that workplace hierarchies complicate even consenting relationships between managers and employees. I wrote recently about how we could legally regulate the VC-founder relationship, to help address and deter sexual harassment even in an informal setting. But consenting relationships are a gray area. Is there a way to legally regulate consensual workplace relationships? Could companies discourage such relationships in employee handbooks or as a matter of policy? And more importantly, should they?

It’s tempting to say yes in this moment. But laying down the law is extreme and might ultimately be ineffective. Workplace relationships are already frowned on at many companies; anyone carrying on a relationship with a coworker, particularly at a smaller company, probably keeps it under wraps, regardless of what their employee handbook prescribes.

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As is usually the case, issuing a moratorium on dating in the workplace wouldn’t stop employees from doing it. And at larger companies with hundreds of thousands of employees, it’s far too sweeping a decree: Employees may be in entirely different departments or work out of different cities altogether. Not only that, regulating workplace relationships could actually have the opposite effect; male entrepreneurs and VCs may take a page out of the Mike Pence playbook and steer clear of working with women altogether to avoid being accused of inappropriate behavior.

The reality is, many of us spend the majority of our time at work, and that’s often where you meet new people. There’s plenty companies can do to address harassment without resorting to regulating their employees’ dating lives—starting with taking action when male employees interpret a business meeting over drinks as an invitation to make unwanted advances.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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