Banning sexual relationships at work is absurd

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Crashing into the messy intersection of personal and professional lives always leads to anguish and injuries, often severe ones. Most of the pain has usually been kept private. Now the rules of the road are abruptly changing.

As an increasing number of business executives have already discovered, it means the impact can play out in public. It’s now belatedly obvious politicians can no longer expect to remain safely immune from the damage either.

That has not stopped politicians on both sides desperately trying to throw a fire blanket over the media revelations of Barnaby Joyce’s relationship with a former staffer and his imminent role as a new father.

Labor can’t usually say enough when it comes to criticising the Deputy Prime Minister, for example. But Bill Shorten, when questioned, said tersely he wanted to make it clear that Mr Joyce’s private life was a matter for him. As, of course, it is – but only to the extent it doesn’t ram right into political life. That whole area has already become much harder to fence off.

The fast-shifting ground for the politics and the morality of all this is, as usual, most evident in the US. By awkward coincidence, the US House of Representatives voted this week to ban sexual relationships between members of Congress and staff (except between married couples! What a relief).

It’s not clear if that’s exactly what Joyce was thinking of when he told the ABC “you have to make a distinct decision not to turn Australia into the United States of America”.

Despite nonsensical suggestions from a few MPs for a similar ban in Australia, this obviously won’t happen.

But Joyce’s argument that most Australians agree marriage break-ups and personal relationships are private matters is being tested by a whole confluence of forces also operating in Australia, if in more muted form.

The lines between what is private and what is public are blurring in all sorts of ways. Just look at Facebook.

Many people, including many politicians, use their families and personal lives to promote their professional messages or demonstrate their qualities as successful leaders.

Transparency is the new buzzword, celebrity culture is thriving. Social media has intensified the power of positive imagery as well as vile personal attacks.

Families, particularly of senior politicians, have become ever more used to being part of the whole package that is sold to the electorate.

And while families of business leaders remain more off-limits, personal behaviour in the workplace is coming under much tougher scrutiny.

What happens when it all goes wrong is much murkier.

In this case, the different decisions made by various media on how – or how not – to pursue this story demonstrate the confusion in the media as much as traditional Aussie squeamishness about marriage breakdowns and affairs..

Barnaby Joyce told 7.30 he can’t fathom how “a pregnant lady crossing the street” deserves a front page (of The Daily Telegraph).

But when he’s the well-known Deputy Prime Minister, the pregnant lady is his former staffer and he’s recently expressed his support for a “traditional” marriage, the interest from the public is hardly surprising.

Does that make the story also in the public interest? Actually, yes it does. At least, it is in the world of 2018.

And at least Joyce didn’t lose his job – unlike the two married AFL executives last year who were sacked for having consensual affairs with two members of staff.

That mean all involved also received mortifying front-page treatment. Nor was Joyce’s pay docked – as happened to QBE’s chief executive John Neal because he had not told his board of a relationship with his executive assistant. That news quickly jumped from the annual report last year to the front page too.

That sex among work colleagues – including between employers and employees – is inherently unacceptable seems an exercise in extreme puritanism that will never work.

Nor should it ever be imposed. It’s more that the risk of being exposed for it has become part of the cost of modern life – lived ever more out in the open.

But this is all part of a broader confusion about the rules of sexual behaviour in the modern workplace, where sex has become overly conflated with sexual harassment.

It’s also another example of how a pendulum that swings too far in one direction can eventually swing back too far the other way.

The overreach by Congress, for example, was part of a more general bill dealing with sexual harassment by legislators, including scandals over using public money to settle cases.

This was directly related to the furore in the wake of publicity over the appalling behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, including decades of silence about it in Hollywood.

The explosive power of the #MeToo movement has since spread around the world, finally forcing acknowledgement of the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace.

For many people, particularly women, that has meant arguing consensual relationships can involve an unacceptable power imbalance because one person – usually male – has a more senior position.

That’s despite the fact so many relationships, temporary or permanent, happy or otherwise, start at work.

Some are stereotypical – executives and their executive assistants, law partners and their clerks, managers and their juniors.

Some involve sexual harassment – however that is defined. Some involve one or both partners being married to someone else.

So sexual relationships at work are always sensitive and can be difficult to manage – not least due to the effect on other employees’ perceptions of favouritism.

Yet the notion sexual behaviour can be neatly codified by HR guidelines or codes of practice – let alone bans – is absurd. Just ask Barnaby.

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