Google's and Facebook's dating policy for employees: You're allowed to ask a co-worker out -- once

Lotta chatter on social media and elsewhere today about this detail from a WSJ story on dating and sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. Especially from people who’ve experienced workplace romance and found, in hindsight, that the “one and done” rule would have ruined a wonderful thing:

How many successful matches would never have been made if the pursuer had been forced to derail after one invitation? On the other hand, how many cases of sexual harassment would never have happened if the pursuer had been forced by company rules to take no for an answer?

Policy is all about trade-offs, my friends:

One rule at Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google: Employees are only allowed to ask a co-worker out once. If they are turned down, they don’t get to ask again. Ambiguous answers such as “I’m busy” or “I can’t that night,” count as a “no,” said Heidi Swartz, Facebook’s global head of employment law. At Facebook, if a potential date involves a person in a more senior position than the other, the date itself doesn’t necessarily have to be disclosed to HR. Facebook says it trusts its employees to disclose a relationship when there is a conflict of interest. Failure to do so will lead to disciplinary action.

But real life is never as cut and dried as the scenarios that appear in sexual-harassment training modules.

“I didn’t know if people were asking me out or not,” said Anna Wood of her four years working at Google until 2015. Ms. Wood, now the founder and CEO of Brains Over Blonde, a feminist lifestyle platform, recalled finding herself on accidental dates where she thought she was going to happy hour for a drink with a co-worker, but her companion meant it to be a date.

Google told Gizmodo that it doesn’t have a firm “one and done” rule about asking a colleague out. Which makes sense, as I wonder what sort of would-be harasser might be deterred by such a rule. A shy guy will hopefully take the hint after the first rejection and not ask again, at least for many months, in the name of avoiding further humiliation. No company policy necessary. Whereas an aggressive creep probably won’t be thwarted: Even in a “one and done” setting, he might resort to sexual comments about a woman’s appearance to signal his interest after being rejected or he might take to belittling her to avenge his rejection. No rule will deter that guy. That’s what HR departments are for. “One and done” might work, I think, in the narrow case of someone who’s so socially awkward that they literally *can’t* take the hint. The weirdos simply aren’t processing the cue from rejection the way a normal person would. A suitor must be ardent in showing his interest, mustn’t he? Well, then, what’s wrong with asking a woman out every six hours or so?

But really, how many men who work in Silicon Valley are that awkward and clueless socially? It can’t be more than, ah, 80-85 percent.

As I say, though, I like “one and done” as a standard. The company’s telling you upfront that it frowns upon colleagues pestering each other romantically, replete with a nice bright line in which you get one ask and then forever hold your peace. Signaling that they’re apt to discipline someone for the very minor transgression of asking for a date again after having been rejected once before *might* make the real creeps sit up a bit straighter and think more carefully about those offhand “your ass looks great in that skirt” remarks. Think of it as the “broken windows” theory of sexual harassment policing. If Google and Facebook are willing to haul you in for the romantic equivalent of jaywalking, they’re willing to send your career to the electric chair for more serious crimes. “One and done” keeps the creeps on their toes, at least in theory.

Consider this scenario, though. Guy asks girl out; girl isn’t interested. That’s his one ask so now he’s done. Over time girl warms up to guy and eventually takes an interest to him. So she asks him out — but he’s seeing someone else at the time and has to say no. That’s her one ask. Now she’s done. Later guy breaks up with his current girlfriend and wants to take another shot at girl … but they’re each barred from asking the other out now, like two football coaches who are out of replay challenges. What do they do? Ask HR for special dispensation? Say “to hell with it” and roll the dice by asking again, on the assumption that someone who showed romantic interest previously probably won’t report them for a second ask even if they’re no longer interested? A decent romcom screenwriter could squeeze 100 minutes easy out of the comic sexual tension between two co-workers who are barred by company rules during the #MeToo moment from asking each other for a date a second time. If nothing else, it’d make for a breezy “Black Mirror” episode given the Silicon Valley setting.

Speaking of which, your exit question: What if the “one and done” rule is just some clever Google/Facebook test of real romantic interest, like that “Black Mirror” episode about measuring true love by two people’s willingness to defy the rules of the simulation they inhabit in order to be together? Anyone could ask a woman out once. But it’s not real passion unless you’re willing to ask twice and maybe get fired for it.