ITEM: You are a middle-level manager of a firm that has just hired a woman to whom you are attracted. You would like to see her socially, but you are afraid that any personal overture might be misinterpreted as sexual harassment.
Item: You are a manager in a firm and are having an affair with a colleague in another department. The company president, who is not aware of your relationship, wants to promote your lover to be your principal assistant. Your colleagues, and the people who work for you, are aware of the relationship. You have a feeling they may resent the situation but you don't know why.
Item: You are a professional woman working with a group of men whose intelligence, integrity and friendship you value highly. One of the men, however, keeps making advances. You do not want to be romantically involved with him, yet he is becoming more and more persistent, and you are becoming more and more uncomfortable. You don't want to turn him off so harshly that you create an enemy and poison the office atmosphere, yet the subtle approach has not worked.
Item: You are a middle-aged lawyer whose service in the political vineyards has finally paid off and you now head the general counsel's office of a large government agency. After years of being on the political outs, you are suddenly back in power. It's an almost dizzying experience, particularly since an attractive, young female lawyer in your office office is sending you dizzying signals.
The emergence of women into the workforce is provoking a whole new set of complex and often delicate sexual tensions in the office that are, so far, being addressed more commonly in office gossip than the more thoughtful forums they deserve. These are problems that touch people's egos, careers, sexual identities and power relationships, but they have not been well understood. One of those who has been analyzing these issues is Natasha Josefowitz, a professor of management at San Diego State and author of "Paths to Power: a Woman's Guide from First Job to Top Executive." She also has been conducting workshops on sexual attraction at work for managers in San Diego's city government, the American Management Association, and the American Society for Training and Development.
What talk there has been about sex in the workplace has focused on harassment, and the approach has been essentially punitive, she says. "It needs to be talked about in a very different way now," says Josefowitz. "What are the guidelines? Men say, 'I don't know if I can be warm with her and give her a hug.'
"The Mary Cunningham story opened it up. Now we can talk about it openly so that a man, if he's interested in a woman sexually and doesn't know if she's interested, can come on tentatively and look for clues instead of making assumptions. Men are becoming more tentative and women more assertive, so they can reject the advance without rejecting the whole man."
Harassment is only one of the four sexual issues Josefowitz has identified. There is manipulation, in which the women are the seducers. She believes that this is less often a case of women using their wiles to get ahead and more often a ploy of the powerless. "If you can't get ahead with recognition of merit and hard work, then you use what you've got." There is also transference, an unconscious process associated with crushes on professors and psychiatrists. "It is true young women have crushes on their bosses," she says, "but it is the role" that is attractive. And, she says, the burden falls on the more powerful not to be seduced and to realize that it is his role rather than his charm that is so appealing.
And there is the issue of attraction between consenting adults. "People who are lovers at work incur negative responses," Josefowitz says. A colleague whose own home relationship is not good may feel envious. He may also see the lovers as a block, and feel anger that he cannot have a business relationship with one person but always must contend with two. "If one of the couple agrees with the other, their opinions are discounted because the assumption is, 'of course.' If they disagree, it is seen as a family squabble and also discounted." And if there is any small power differential between the two lovers, anything good that happens to the less powerful person is immediately seen as favoritism.
"One of the things I tell managers is to have a policy about affairs," says Josefowitz. "They are either okay or they're not, but have it explicit. A policy won't keep people from sleeping with each other, but it will give indications to people about how to behave."
The workplace is changing and so must its rules. Adages about keeping personal activites separate from office activities grow harder to follow. People are going to meet, marry, divorce and have affairs at work with the increasing frequency that increased opportunity presents. Problems will arise and they need to be understood. The first step is to begin talking about these problems and to do so with a little more sympathy for the uncertainties men are feeling. Out of this, hopefully, will come a new etiquette that reduces confusion and pain for all.