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What Movies Teach about Workplace Ethics, Harassment and Romance

By Maria Grace, Ph.D.

Mixing business with “pleasure” has never been a recipe for a “happily ever after” and sex in the workplace seems to cause pain more often than satisfaction. Every year, an average of 15,000 claims are filed for sexual harassment in the workplace. News headlines about sexual scandals between prominent bosses and work subordinates provoke public contempt and outrage. More families and couples split as a result of an extramarital affair that one of the spouses began in the workplace; and more psychotherapists treat patients experiencing the aftermaths of a workplace romance gone sour. Such aftermaths may range from feeling angry, confused, humiliated and depressed to having been fired from the job, often without even a letter of recommendation.

Companies today are enforcing work dating policies, providing training about work romance, or choosing to show lenience toward romantic involvement among employees, so long as it doesn’t threaten productivity and team effort. And yet, so many people are not clear about the rules of romance at work. Still a taboo and a subject for tabloid gossip, sex and romance at work is considered a thorny issue most of us wish would go away.

Many of today’s movies reflect the issues of romance at work. Whether you are an employer or employee, here is how to prepare your personnel and yourself to deal with Cupid striking at the office:

Know The Definition of Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment occurs when one employee makes continued, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, to another employee, against his or her wishes. This unwanted behavior affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with this person’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

The film “Disclosure,” illustrates how sexual harassment is the abuse of power that violates another person’s moral, ethical and emotional boundaries. The films shows how a computer specialist is sued for sexual harassment by a former lover turned boss, whose purpose is to incriminate him and destroy both his career and his personal life.

If you are being sexually harassed don’t stay silent hoping it will go away. This behavior usually escalates if you don’t stop the harasser with a firm, proactive stand. Call the person on their behavior immediately, ask them to stop and warn them that you will report them if they continue. If it continues, report the harassment. Your employer has the responsibility to take each complaint seriously and investigate.

Deal Appropriately with Sexual Advances from Coworkers: A sexual advance may be a straightforward expression of sexual attraction to a coworker, a blunt invitation for a physical relationship, or flirtatious behavior that has gone overboard.

In the movies, Andy, the central character of “The 40-Year Old Virgin”, neutralizes his female boss’s advances by staying loyal to his values. His boss understands. When he gets promoted, it is not because of sexual favors but because of his job performance.

Real life often resembles the movies. If you stay loyal to your values and keep your work priorities straight, you too can achieve success without losing your integrity.

Honor Your Work First, then Your Sex Fantasies: In the film “A Time to Kill” a young and handsome Mississippi lawyer is handling with admirable strength a tough criminal case and a very attractive assistant. Even though the sexual chemistry between them sizzles, he chooses to channel his passion into the case, which he wins.

If you ever feel irresistibly attracted to a coworker, before you give into your fantasies do a reality check. Examine how it would affect your work if you consummated your sexual attraction. If you realize that it would jeopardize your work—and your relationship with your colleague—then you should honor your work and look for a different outlet for your fantasies.

Don’t ever Start An Extramarital Affair in The Workplace: In “The Firm,” young attorney Mitch is the victim of a corrupt law firm that throws its employees into extramarital affairs and then blackmails them to extort their loyalty. He has a company-induced affair that costs him his marriage and his sanity. The movie has a happy ending only because Mitch fights very hard to recover the love of his wife.

In real life, extramarital affairs in the workplace never have a happily ever after. Besides the agony of being discovered at home, the parties involved live with the constant stress of being discovered at work. When this happens be prepared to cut your losses. And those losses may include your reputation, your family, your job, the person you have the affair with, or all of the above.

When You Date A Colleague, Set Post-Breakup Rules from The Beginning: In the classic film “The Apartment,” C.C. Baxter climbs the career ladder by lending his apartment to his boss for his extramarital trysts. He’s also falling in love with his coworker, Fran. All seems to work fine, until he discovers that Fran is also his boss’s mistress. How will they all emerge from such perplexed dynamics and keep their jobs?

In real life, a romance with a coworker always has some impact on your work life. Once you know each other intimately, you become more vulnerable to each other. This is why you must draw up a contract in which you specify how you will preserve your working relationship, should your personal relationship not last. Sign it and honor it, in case you break up. It’s a smart thing to do. You don’t want a situation like Baxter and Fran’s.

Stay Away from Office Sex Gossip: In the French comedy “The Closet,” the main character François spreads false rumors at work that he is gay, hinting that he will sue the management if they fire him for sexual discrimination. As sex gossip spreads in the office it creates havoc in his coworkers’ careers and personal lives with consequences that vary from hilarious to severe.

In real life, you should avoid office havoc by staying away from gossip about your coworkers’ sexual orientation and sex life. When a coworker confesses to you an affair with another coworker, politely decline to become their sounding board. Protect your self and your job. You never know how office sex gossip may backfire or used against you, whether you have generated it or not.

When Cupid Strikes at The Office, Keep Your Romance Private.

In the movie “Kindergarten Cop”, tough guy detective Kimble goes into a school undercover as a kindergarten teacher to investigate a case. He ends up falling in love with Joyce, another school teacher who is also the very subject of his investigation. But this is true love and it changes Kimble’s destiny. Leaving the police force, he returns to Joyce and her school as real kindergarten teacher.

In real life, if you have found your soul mate in a certain coworker and you want your budding romance to have a happily ever after, you must keep it private until it becomes a serious, mutual commitment. Never transfer in the workplace personal conflicts with the person you date. Always respect each other as coworkers. Make your romance public only when it’s a solid relationship that you know will last. Then, it’s a time to celebrate. Congratulations! You have shown discretion and good judgment!

Knowing how to navigate successfully the dark waters of romance in the workplace, should be part of your job training. Follow these guidelines as rules of conduct to ensure your career and safeguard your personal life, every time Cupid’s arrows threaten to pierce your bubble at the office.

Read other articles and learn more about Maria Grace.

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