Last weekend I learnt a new term: consensual flirtation.
It popped up in my mailbox past midnight courtesy former Penguin Canada CEO David Davidar’s litigation counsel. He argued that his client, who was sacked from Penguin after an illustrious 25-year career for allegedly sexually harassing a colleague Lisa Rundle, had not assaulted anyone. He had a “consensual, flirtatious” relationship that grew out of a close friendship with a colleague.
Through his lawyer, Davidar outlined a relationship that lasted four-and-a-half years, and turned flirtatious after two years. At some point the married author had apparently suggested to Rundle that their relationship become more “romantic”, but she replied that she had other “suitors” too and wouldn’t like to keep a more intimate relationship a secret.
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So is Davidar lying? Why did Rundle bring up the complaint so late? Is this an office affair gone wrong? Did they really spend four-and-a-half years just watching Federer play tennis, reading poetry to each other and exchanging cream-filled biscuits and two kisses?
It doesn’t matter, really.
Workplaces are brimming over with uneven power equations. All of us have access to multiple relationship opportunities in this unequal minefield—and talented, fair bosses are always attractive to their subordinates. Besides, everyone wants to please the person who signs off on their increment and, one could argue, any boss has more access to work-play opportunities than an average, everyman employee.
It’s especially tricky for bosses to walk the relationship tightrope in an age when many of us believe we have easy, equal equations with the people we report to. In a world where it’s not unusual for bosses and employees to send each other drunken SMSes and swap personal stories, it’s tougher to distinguish a close friendship from a consensual flirtation from sexual harassment.
Yet, by propositioning/getting intimate with a colleague who reports to him/her, a CEO shifts the power equation so that the other party now has his/her own power to utilize in that relationship. In short, the onus not to misuse or manipulate an employee-boss relationship lies with the boss and once he/she takes the first misstep, there’s no controlling the outcome. Four years of great consensual flirting can then easily be followed by a sexual harassment case.
But Davidar’s case is the least of our sexual harassment worries.
Closer home, horrific stories of the misuse of power emerge routinely from our workplaces where our mostly male bosses think sexual relationships with their junior employees are a company-approved perk. And maybe they are? Indian companies rarely terminate male employees for sexual harassment; many have also been known to terminate the female employee who filed the complaint. In India, we still don’t have a sexual harassment law although one is likely soon.
Most of the working women I know learnt early in their careers to keep their guard up at all times. I know I’ll never forget my first job interview.
The hotshot editor whose work I had worshipped growing up said he would meet me at his hotel at 7pm. When I got to the hotel, I called him on the house phone and he said, come on up. I shuffled around nervously for a couple of minutes in the lobby, torn between the eagerness of a 23-year-old to meet one of her journalism heroes and the thought that it was perhaps best to walk away from the job. He interviewed me over drinks besides the bed in his tiny room that was made up for the night. He was charming, he flirted, and I pretended not to recognize the signals. Eventually, I escaped unscathed. It was my first lesson on surviving the workplace.
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