How to tell the difference between a workplace romance and coercion
- Bill Gates allegedly used his workplace to hit on women, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
- While workplace relationships can be consensual, power imbalances can create coercive situations.
Bill Gates allegedly used his workplace to meet women to date and have sexual relationships, according to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Microsoft employees told the Times about multiple instances in which they said Gates asked out women at the office who worked for him, making "clumsy" advancements towards them.
According to the Times, Gates emailed a Microsoft employee to ask her out in 2006. Another woman told the Times Gates asked her out while they traveled together for a Gates Foundation trip. She told the Times she was uncomfortable and laughed it off.
However, the workplace is also where Gates met his ex-wife, Melinda, when she joined Microsoft as a product manager in 1987.
Christina Jeffrey, assistant director at Humantold and mental
What is the difference between an office romance and coercion?
Jeffrey told Insider office romances are normally characterized by the feeling of equal status in a dynamic. Normally, these can take place between colleagues at the same level.
Coercive situations, on the other hand, have an innate power imbalance to begin with. Jeffrey said this can make a dangerous situation enticing at first.
"Romance is about attraction, chemistry, mutual engagement, and
For example, a situation in which a manager is secretly having a sexual relationship with an intern has an innate power imbalance in which one party relies on the other for employment, raises, and other necessities in the workplace.
What are the signs a workplace romance has turned coercive?
To distinguish between an office romance and a coercive situation, assess how secretive the relationship is.
"Office romances oftentimes have an element of discretion, but not secrecy," Jeffrey told Insider. "Whereas coercive relationships are secretive and can sometimes result in feelings of shame, fear of judgment and retribution."
Another sign a situation has turned coercive is if someone is actively trying to avoid the person they are having a relationship with out of fear or anxiety.
"My first thought is do you feel safe? Is there a sense of threat? Do you feel like you cannot share what is happening with others? Do you find yourself avoiding places in the office where you might run into this person?" Jeffrey said.
"All of these are warning signs you want to listen to."
What should you do if you are caught in a coercive situation?
If you are caught in a coercive situation, Jeffrey said the first step you need to take is confiding in someone about the situation.
While going to someone else can feel scary or nerve-wracking, it's the best way to solve the problem and find a way out of it.
"Identify a safe person for you and tell them what is going on, whether it is a friend, colleague, or even an HR liaison," Jeffrey told Insider. "Shame thrives in secrecy."
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