Can a purportedly consensual sexual relationship at work be considered sexual misconduct? Absolutely. When a sexual relationship emerges between a boss and a subordinate, the law might not consider it consensual even if the parties say that it is.
There are a host of potential problems. A supervisor who gets in the habit of dating subordinates could be accused of sexual harassment. The power dynamic between the participants may make it problematic for the subordinate to say no — to sex or to workplace requests. A breakup could lead to such animosity that the employee feels the work environment has become hostile.
Any of these could be what happened to an unnamed woman who was pushed out of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates three years ago. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the woman found herself in a so-called consensual relationship with then co-CEO Greg Jensen. Reports say the woman was given a settlement of more than $1 million.
Shortly after that incident, another woman apparently came forward with a complaint that Jensen had groped her buttocks. That woman, also unidentified, has since left the hedge fund giant, but Reuters reports that she was not pushed out in retaliation.
However, the WSJ noted that Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio was involved in the mediation of both matters. It is unclear whether the second woman received a settlement.
Jensen, now the hedge fund’s co-chief investment officer, has called the WSJ’s description of his behavior “inaccurate and salacious.” In a statement, Bridgewater described the story as “an uninformed misrepresentation of what actually occurred.”
Can a sexual harassment claim succeed after a consensual relationship?
Yes. It’s difficult to prove that a relationship was consensual, especially when it involved a substantial power differential.
The subordinate may honestly have felt that continued employment or advancement was predicated on the relationship. This is not uncommon and is known as quid pro quo (“something for something”) sexual harassment.
When a certain supervisor routinely dates subordinates, co-workers may perceive a quid pro quo. That could lead to a hostile work environment claim.
Even if the relationship was consensual at first, not everyone handles breakups professionally. A breakup might lead one participant to harass or even stalk the other, which could potentially lead to a lawsuit.
When human emotions are involved, the objective truth is often difficult to ascertain — and emotions can run high in workplace dating. If you are involved in a romantic relationship with a supervisor or anyone at a higher level, you have rights. Talk to a lawyer; you can take steps to reduce the risk that you will be pushed out of your job if things end badly.