Q: I am a Senate staffer and, as much as I hate to admit it,
I think I have developed a full-fledged crush on our office’s chief of staff.
While he and I have always casually flirted with one another, it has recently
escalated to the point that I am now considering pursuing a relationship with
him. I sense that the feelings are mutual. Before going for it, I wanted to make
sure that the rules allow a staffer to date his or her supervisor. Do the Senate
ethics rules prohibit us from dating?
A: In recent years, the Senate ethics rules have intruded further and
further into the personal lives of both Senators and staffers. For example, you
may not accept gifts worth more than $50 from anyone, you may not accept any
gifts from lobbyists, and at certain events you can only eat hors d’oeuvres. The
restrictions have become so great that some staffers might wonder whether there
is any part of their lives that the rules do not address. Well, here is one. As
intrusive as the ethics rules can be, they do not tell staffers who they may or
may not date. No Senate ethics rule prohibits one staffer from dating another.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you are home free, or that intraoffice
relationships are without risk. In fact, there are good reasons for staffers who
are either in such a relationship or considering one to proceed with caution.
This is particularly true in circumstances like yours where one side of the
relationship holds a higher- ranking position than the other. In such a
situation, there are a few issues to keep in mind.
The first is Senate Rule 42, which covers employment practices. Rule 42
prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national
origin, age or state of physical handicap. Among other things, Rule 42 forbids
what has come to be known as sexual harassment in the workplace.
You may be wondering what on earth a rule against sexual harassment has to do
with your situation. And there is a good chance that the answer is nothing at
all. After all, sexual harassment is broadly defined as unwelcome sexual conduct
that affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an
individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive
work environment. Here, it appears there is nothing unwelcome about the conduct
in question at all.
But, regardless of how rosy things might look now, workplace relationships do
not always end well, and they can even lead to sexual harassment claims where
you would never expect them. For starters, how would your relationship affect
others in your office? I presume that your chief of staff doesn’t do anything
that might be interpreted as sexual harassment of his staffers. But, even so,
there is a risk that staffers might claim that they were treated less favorably
because they were not dating the chief of staff, or because they had previously
turned down his advances. Moreover, if you and your chief of staff were to date
for a while and then you called it off, how would that affect your own work
experience? What if he were to make advances even after they were no longer
wanted? These questions may seem trivial now, but answering them in some
circumstances can lead to legal proceedings.
This raises the second issue to consider. Sexual harassment in Senate offices
is prohibited not only by Rule 42, but also by the Congressional Accountability
Act of 1995. That act applies Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to all
Congressional employees and gives jurisdiction over discrimination claims under
that act to the Office of Compliance. This means sexual harassment claims in the
Senate can lead to actions by no less than three different bodies: the Senate
Ethics Committee (which administers Rule 42), the Office of Compliance (which
administers provisions of the Congressional Accountability Act) and federal
courts (which preside generally over Title VII sexual harassment claims).
Given these risks, some Senate offices impose their own restrictions on
intraoffice romances — which brings me to the last thing you should consider
before pursuing the relationship: Your office’s internal employment policy or
manual. Historically, the Senate has left most employment policies to the
discretion of each Senate office. While I cannot speak to your particular
office, some offices have adopted “anti-fraternization” policies forbidding
certain types of intraoffice romances.
For example, one Senate office’s policy explicitly provides that “romantic
relationships between a supervisor and ... subordinate are not permitted.” This
prohibition, the office’s manual says, is based on the risks of “disruption of
the Office’s operations” and violations of the sexual harassment policy.
Under the terms of the office’s policy, a supervisor is defined quite broadly
to include “anyone who can affect” the other employee’s “pay or performance
reviews, or can give an employee any assignment, or can impact any other term or
condition of the person’s employment.” If a relationship “develops” between a
supervisor and subordinate, the policy requires that one of them must either
resign or transfer to a position where the supervisor-subordinate position no
Of course, I have no way of knowing if your office has a similar policy. But
you’d better check. Yours could be a case of forbidden, or at least tainted,
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