Romance in the workplace doesn’t pay off

by Mike Heral

The minimum financial cost for my indiscretion is $48,000. That’s money not going to my son, who is fighting leukemia, or to my family’s college fund. I lost those wages because I was an idiot. I agreed to a relationship forbidden by my former employer. And when it was discovered, it essentially ended my career. Punishments vary, but trust me, only fools think they won’t get caught. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to retire, but I lost a promotion when I chose the fool’s path.

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book emphasizing workplace inequality, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” presents several arguments against workplace inequality. What she doesn’t discuss, though, are work-related sexual indiscretions. It’s too bad because I’ve witnessed a lot of careers die in the same way as mine. It’s important information for students to learn before they enter the workforce.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported more than 11,000 sexual harassment cases in fiscal year 2011. It’s not just women being harassed. Claims filed by men were the second highest on record.

I regularly facilitated an equal opportunity workshop during my naval career. During one workshop, I asked for a show of hands from anyone who had either been sexually harassed or witnessed sexual harassment during their career. I expected only a few would volunteer embarrassing information. However, I was shocked when most women raised their hands. This result was repeated every time I asked. Remembering that, I wasn’t surprised when 32 instructors were recently accused of sexual impropriety at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Women aren’t just unwitting victims. In the latter half of my career, I participated in a teleconference with a group of senior enlisted males involved in hosting a career conference elsewhere. One of our female leaders was on-site at the conference. Part of our call included checking on her welfare. In hindsight, we wanted gossip. Because we were all peers, the senior males divulged she was trying to sleep with anyone she suspected would influence her advancement. Rather than doing the right thing and recalling her, we allowed our wayward woman to continue humiliating herself.

Her alleged actions were in vain. Like me, she never advanced above the pay grade she held on that day. Conference attendees confided there was no reason to reward her for what she was voluntarily giving away.

In my experience men, often suspect a woman’s promotion isn’t based on merit. It’s unfortunate because those few misguided women perpetuate negative stereotypes.

With former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimating 19,000 annual sexual assaults, it’s easy to think only the military has a problem with sex. However, the military comprises only a portion of EEOC complaints. What happens in the military happens in the civilian world too.

The question is: How can workers reduce unprofessional sexual behavior?

The easy answer is to treat others the same way we want to be treated ourselves. That answer is impractical because it should be commonplace by now. We are apparently bent on inequality. With that in mind, I offer two solutions based from experience.

First, everyone needs to be aware of what is and isn’t sexual harassment. The EEOC’s reports an interesting number: 6,658. That’s the number of sexual harassment claims the EEOC found had “no reasonable cause” in 2011. In other words, the case was dismissed without merit. I once faced a charge of sexual harassment because I didn’t talk to female coworkers. The case was dismissed when I proved that I didn’t talk to male coworkers either. False allegations foster acrimony, stain reputations and waste productivity. Fortunately, reduction of baseless claims is possible through training.

Second, everyone must report impropriety, even when it involves friends. Mine knew what I was doing and looked the other way. My romantic partner parlayed my influence into a successful career for herself. Boiled down to its essence, I traded performance evaluations for sex. To do so, I was complicit in damaging interpersonal relationships among my peers. My command’s once vibrant mission was shredded because I was selfish. My friends should’ve turned me in to save themselves from months of infighting. It’s important to remember adults are responsible for their own actions.

Unprofessional sexual conduct in the workplace damages participants and coworkers alike, and impairs the organization’s ability to function. It’s every bit as concerning as more regularly reported topics, such as unequal pay and work-life balance. Every worker should incorporate a personal zero-tolerance policy and not deviate. Otherwise, the next $48,000 in forfeited wages could be theirs.