How to date ethically when you're at the top of a hierarchy?
June 4, 2016 12:21 AM   Subscribe

Everyone says not to do it, but you're going to do it anyway: how to approach dating ethically within a hierarchical community, when you're at the top? I'd like to protect myself, the person I'm interested in, and the other community members who may be affected as much as possible.

I've never dated someone in the workplace - at my station or above or below, but I know that plenty of people have done it, with varying degrees of success and complication. I've never dated someone within a close-knit hobby or social group due to the potential for things to go wrong, but it happens, right? I've never been a soccer team member who asks out the team coach, or the head of a culinary meet-up group who asks out a junior member, but I know that these things happen in the real world, for better or worse.

I now find myself as the head of amateur theatre company with hundreds of community members. We offer acting courses which people pay to take - to be clear I wouldn't date a student who is paying me money. After finishing the courses people stick around in our community and audition for productions and performance ensembles - these roles are unpaid in both directions. However, people take them very seriously as demand for roles is far higher than supply - and casting agents and other important people often come to our shows which leads to additional professional opportunities for people who are cast. Emotional actors who have unsuccessful auditions often lash out with false accusations or rumors of misconduct and favoritism which are easy to squash because they're false - sour grapes.

For a variety of personal reasons I am extremely interested in going against my risk-adverse history just this once and pursuing a relationship with someone in my community. I have every reason to think that there is a mutual attraction there that is worth pursuing, but I'd like to make sure I approach the situation as ethically as possible. I'd like to protect the people I work with in a professional context from potentially losing opportunities due to my personal biases. I'd like to protect the person I'm interested in from being seen as someone who is merely in good with me, instead of someone who is wonderfully talented and deserving of roles. Furthermore, I'd like to protect them from thinking they need to say yes to my personal invitations because they'll lose out on future opportunities by saying no. I'd like to protect my own record of professionalism which has allowed me to easily squash all sour grapes accusations of bias to date. Not all of this may be possible, but I'd like to do my best.

Without foreseeing this particular situation, during the last year I've brought in a panel of other decision-makers, and created some checks and balances to make things as fair as possible for our community. To fulfill one of our recent policy additions, during our latest audition I abstained from all discussion and voting on the person I'm interested in because I knew I had a personal bias. The person was unanimously approved by the rest of the panel for an important role, based on artistic merit. This feels like something important that should come up should I ask this person out - their professional position within the company is safe, regardless of what happens between the two of us, because the rest of the panel is in their corner based on merit. However, this feels quite heavy to lead with. I'm not sure how or when to work it in. There's a lot of flirtation in our recent professional emails and face-to-face encounters but I haven't pulled the trigger on anything personal yet. I am generally quite bold in romantic situations that are purely personal, but I'm at a loss for how to approach this situation.

I'm seeking any advice and anecdotes you can provide about dating ethically within hierarchies in general, as well as any insight into how to approach my specific situation. I'm not interested in suggestions saying that I shouldn't proceed, although who knows, you may well be right!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you got an HR department? Can you ask their hypothetical advice? Get it in writing? I'd want my arse covered officially before I went further. (Or ask the board.) But I would refuse to discuss specific people, just what positions have what dating regulations and how to recuse oneself in these situations. Spouses in theatre aren't uncommon so it should be a policy thing anyway, even if it isn't yet.
posted by taff at 1:09 AM on June 4, 2016

It's a bad a idea to date people you work with but it's ok to marry one of them. How serious are you about this person and what is their character and interest level? It all depends on that.
posted by fshgrl at 1:51 AM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm loving the fact that you've put a selection process in place that has checks and balances, AND that you removed yourself from the panel when there was a conflict of interest. That's how it should be.

Anecdata - a couple of weeks after starting a new job, I hooked up with and then started a relationship with someone who was two or three management levels above me, but not in my direct reporting line. I was really clear from the start that it was between us, and it would not be acknowledged or discussed at work, because I wanted my colleagues to get to know me as me, and learn to appreciate my skills and work, and I did not want that to be overshadowed by the fact that I was sleeping with X. X was reluctant - he didn't see the problem - but when I made it clear that our continued relationship was dependent on his silence, he acquiesced. 4 months in, when I had passed my probation period and felt that I was secure in my position, I agreed that we could go public. Turns out most people had figured it out already (or X had not honored our agreement - in hindsight, probably the latter). But the people that knew also knew that I was the one trying to keep it secret so that there could be no question about my competence. And they respected me for that. So even though that relationship ended a few months later, I didn't suffer any professional fallout.

So yeah, check in with HR, but be respectful of her, and the impact this may have on her future career - if you care about her, you want to make sure that there is no way that this could in any way be seen as she only got a role because she's sleeping with the producer, because then that's her career down the drain.

I can understand that it sucks to be at the top of the organizational hierarchy while dating - some people would use it to their advantage, which would be bad. You're the opposite, seeing it as a detriment, and while yeah, it is, it says a lot about your character that you recognize that. I think as long as you're looking for a relationship rather than a hookup, and are respectful of your partner's concerns, then it's okay. But take your cue from your potential partner. She has the most to lose in this scenario. Be aware of her concerns, and respect her career.

And by being clear that a relationship with you isn't a shortcut to fame and fortune, and that you just like her for her, you will also (hopefully) avoid getting into a relationship with someone that only values you for your connections and what you can do for them. (The person you talk about doesn't seem to fall into that category, but I'll say it anyway).
posted by finding.perdita at 2:00 AM on June 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

At some level we are all part of a hierarchical community of some sort, even if it's just the community at large. The reality is adults make friends / form relationships (romantic or not) around work, school, church, other groups they are involved with. Really, those are the only places adults spend enough time with each other to develop any sort of bond. The alternative is seeing somebody in a bar or swiping right on Tinder.

So pretty much all workplaces discourage workplace romances while recognizing that shit happens. Bill Gates has been married to his former Executive Assistant for 20+ years. I'd guess it may even be more common in the theatrical world as you are in an environment where outward expression of emotion is already part of the job, so people are maybe more tuned to that sort of thing than they may be in a soulless cube farm in an office building.

So I'm favor of you following your heart, as you seem to be mindful of the potential landmines, and maybe this the start of a very long term relationship. Only one way to find out.
posted by COD at 4:59 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

If I'm reading this correctly, it's a volunteer based community theatre org, so there is no HR for OP to ask.

To start, maybe try to hang out with them away from the theatre as friends first, to try to establish a little bit of separation mentally from you as a person and you as theatre director (or whatever your actual role is).

I do community theatre. If the head of my current group asked me out, I would never assume that dating him would get me better parts, but I would be afraid that if I said no I would never be cast again. Of course, being me, I might also decide I felt too awkward to ever audition for his company if I said no, or if I said yes and then things went south. I would want and expect him to assure me that my decision wouldn't have upfront negative repercussions from him due to hurt feelings or wounded pride.

If you can finagle a hangout away from the group and the theatre, I would say something like, "I like you as a person, and would be interested in going on a date with you. Before you answer, know that this, whether yes or no, has no bearing on your position within the theatre group. Saying no will not hurt your standing in my eyes or the eyes of the company - we always cast impartially."

Then if they say yes, you go on a fun but casual date, and at the end of the date if you are both interested in continuing, then you have a conversation regarding how to handle it to avoid accusations of partiality and playing favorites.

Good luck!
posted by firei at 5:14 AM on June 4, 2016 [11 favorites]

I know a few people who met their spouse in a similar way. It's good to be cognizant of your position in this organization but I don't think it's necessarily abusive to date someone you work with (or volunteer with or whatever). It is, however, risky. If things go badly you might lose the respect of your colleagues or damage your professional reputation. Is this person worth the risk?
posted by deathpanels at 6:11 AM on June 4, 2016

Because your organization apparently has no formal policies on this, it might be useful to look at policies at places that do have them, especially in arts organizations where the issues might be the closest to what you are dealing with. I don't work in the arts, but where I am employed I believe the policy is basically that dating is ok, as long as there is full disclosure, which could mean telling supervisors, coworkers, and even clients right when you start dating. That is one model, but I know there are others, and one might fit the needs of your organization much better. Even if your organization will never formally adopt any policies, being open about what you are doing and how you are handling things will only be to your advantage.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:27 AM on June 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

The bummer is you know you are protecting this person from conflicts of interest and the person you want to date can know it as well. But many other people will assume the person is getting preferential treatment based on your relationship. I guess if they go into it knowing they will likely be the subject of some nasty gossip and you are okay having started that ball rolling down the hill, then ask then out.
posted by cecic at 6:36 AM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Community theater is where you GO to date someone, isn't it? I's like a lot of volunteer go there for theater, for sure, but also to find other like-minded people to hang out with. I wouldn't get myself all tied up in knots about wanting to date someone who happens to do theater as well.
posted by xingcat at 7:20 AM on June 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd like to protect the person I'm interested in from being seen as someone who is merely in good with me, instead of someone who is wonderfully talented and deserving of roles. Furthermore, I'd like to protect them from thinking they need to say yes to my personal invitations because they'll lose out on future opportunities by saying no. I'd like to protect my own record of professionalism which has allowed me to easily squash all sour grapes accusations of bias to date. Not all of this may be possible, but I'd like to do my best.

Of course you do. You cannot have all those things while pursuing this. That's why this is a thing. Even if you have the best intentions and the other person understands that perfectly, it has an effect on the whole community. You are not the first person to wish that wasn't true, or to think maybe there's a way to be smart about it.

Your decision is actually, is this important enough for you to risk any/all of those things happening? Or is this important enough to both of you for one of you to quit the business side of the community and become strictly a partner of the other socially? If no and no, don't do it. Anecdotes about people ignoring this advice and having it work out happily ever after are great, but remember, that happened by chance and could just as easily not, and it's largely out of your control which. Your description of frequent accusations in the community makes me think it's much more likely to be ugly.
posted by ctmf at 9:56 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mr. Arnicae is a professional musician and works sometimes in musical theatre (albeit scenarios in which all but the occasional volunteer usher is paid). He has dated within the theatre, but would never date his subordinates or people who rely on him to get cast. Indeed, that has been a major point of friction in previous relationships for him. Despite specifically dating people who weren't involved in his workplaces, eventually his partners would solicit his coaching on their singing/dancing/acting skills (which never works well - it is really tough to coach friends, family and loved ones) and ultimately ask him to cast him (or help them get cast) in his projects.

It is tough. As an outsider, I've observed a lot of relationships begin in the theatre, often resulting in cacophony when couples were having spats which at times impacted the product on the stage, and dramatic mid-season resignations when people broke up. There are also marriages made at the theatres he works with - but they're between people working at the same level (actors marrying actors, management staff marrying management staff).

I asked Mr. Arnicae for feedback, and his first response was not reproducible here. His second response was "Bad idea. Becomes impossible to direct them with other people. Not so much for the person he's dating, but for everyone else. There's so much natural drama in theatre groups, don't add to it. Don't date your cast. Starts badly, ends worse. You either end of married (and your spouse can't work in the theatre, unless they're so talented you can promote them to music/artistic director) or everyone hates you and/or thinks you're a creep. But, the poster is going to do it anyway, because they always do."

So, OP, if you are going to do it anyway, protect yourself and the theatre as much as possible. I would suggest not only withdrawing from casting decisions relating to anyone you have dated, will date or are dating, but also not directing any shows that s/he is cast in.
posted by arnicae at 10:05 AM on June 4, 2016 [9 favorites]

This is a problem space I have contemplated. For various reasons, it didn't lead anywhere. But there was also no drama. Here are things I did:

I looked up the rules at work concerning who was off limits so I knew what would be trouble and what would not be. If they weren't above me in specific, it was okay. So, if you are at the very top here, this might be a no go from that perspective.

When one of the men flirting with me was scheduled to become my boss, I got moved to another team. He was eventually fired, supposedly for sexual harassment and/or sexual misconduct. (Dodged that bullet.)

I made it clear to one powerful man that in departmental meetings, he was to be no more and no less friendly to me than he would be to any other entry level employee. I was happy to be chatty in smaller group situations, but at big meetings, he was a representative of the company and I wanted no appearance of impropriety.

My position on this, which was communicated subtly with body language, initially freaked him out. To his credit, he respected my position. The fact that he did meant I trusted him and would have been willing to date him had such an opportunity come up. If, instead, he had reacted to this with an attitude of "You can't tell me what do. I'm a VIP and you are Nobody!" that would have killed any hope he might have had of getting with me romantically.

I am telling you that to say this: You prove to her that you will not hurt her if it leads to romance by being incredibly respectful of her boundares in the here and now. If you actually need to throw it in her face that you recused yourself from the vote and she got the part anyway, she probably isn't a good candidate for such a relationship and if you did that me (threw that information in my face), I would think you were a boorish asshole and also not socially savvy enough to date me under such delicate and challenging circumstances. If it takes more than the lift of an eyebrow to warn you off of stupid behavior, you will not get next to me while there is any whiff of conflict of interest.

If it does go forward, keep things on the down low. It doesn't have to be a big secret, but it also shouldn't be in everyone's face that you two are an item. This makes it easier to just date. If you marry, sure, everyone can know. Keeping it on the down low makes it easier to break up, and that makes it easier to work things out.

My marriage went as well as it did in part because I treated it as a private matter. I don't like the entire world butting into my private life. That is a policy that has served me well generally. Who you have sex with should be a big deal to you. It shouldn't be a big deal to coworkers, acquaintances, etc. So just don't be quick to announce who you are seeing.
posted by Michele in California at 10:40 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've worked in theatre (on the musical side) for 20 years, played shows ranging from sit-down productions of shows currently playing on Broadway to children's shows at the local YMCA. I'm generally the Musical Director or Assistant Conductor, so I'm privy to the drama that occurs both on the the artistic staff and the cast.

5% of the time, when the Artistic Director dates someone in the cast, it works out great. 80% of that 5%, they get married and run the theater together.

95% of the time, it's a disaster, generally because everyone else in the company reacts badly to the situation.

Managing Directors (who generally aren't involved in casting, and who also generally aren't in the room during rehearsals) don't have to deal with most of this stuff.

As you said, though, if someone wants to date someone, they're going to, and you can't really dissuade them. So...

1st date would ideally be between productions. Mid-rehearsal process would be stressful for the nascent relationship, and if it got out, would add to the drama (of which there is naturally already a great amount aside from romantic entanglements).

During the next show, if s/he's cast, make no effort to conceal it. The only two things that I've observed helping consistently in the 5% of the time that it has worked:

Be as friendly and cheerful with EVERYONE as you are with your S/O. Don't treat it as though you have to be "as rough on your partner as everyone else." Elevate your interactions with everyone to the congeniality with which you treat your partner.

Whenever you and your S/O are talking during rehearsal (on break or whatever), be sure they stay on the other side of the table from you. Whenever a cast member sits down next to the director at the table, *everyone* in the cast notices. Furthermore, I f that cast member is doing so regularly, and it's known that the two of you are dating, then it's seen as special access or preferential treatment.

That said, if you're not at the point-of-no-return yet, return.
posted by stewiethegreat at 11:11 AM on June 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

I will add that if she does not already know you recused yourself because the vote was secret, you need to get her that information well before you inquire about possibly dating her. It needs to be divulged as casually and discreetly as possible.

If she already knows, bringing it up in the context of asking for a date reads as an implied threat.
posted by Michele in California at 11:19 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Theater is full of drama, that's why it's called "Drama". If you're not searching for serenity in life.
posted by ovvl at 4:59 PM on June 4, 2016

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