I would not have written the laws and regulations about sexual harassment that control the American workplace in the 21st century. They over-reach. They facilitate the false grievances that cluster around “political correctness” in all its forms.
But humans are corrupt, and so tend to abuse any power advantage. And these laws are an understandable effort to protect the powerless. When people won’t do justice voluntarily, the political electorate always steps in to fill the vacuum with the blunt, dumb instrument of a legislated solution. Laws always over-reach.
Any human relationship that is not explicitly equal is therefore unequal. One person has the ability to coerce the other, no matter if he would or not. One is Strong, the other is Weak. This much seems like stating the obvious but there are many people who don’t see the imbalance, especially when they are the Strong.
In heirarchical organizations these power imbalances are structural, not relational. The lines on the org chart indicate them. Smart stewards of the organization know the diagram of power relationships doesn’t become irrelevant as friendships grow. Personal closeness does not reduce the danger of abuse. Rather, as individuals grow in friendship over years of working together, their warmth can allow a laxity that the Strong can interpret wrongly.
I’m not just talking about the danger of two people having an affair. Sexual or emotional attractions develop as co-workers spend time together. Adults just recognize these attractions as an organic and distracting part of spending time together, and starve them as a matter of conscience.
But there is another, distinct danger: that the Strong will oppress the Weak unconsciously even as they paradoxically grow closer, on matters far short of something so explicit as sex.
One of the features of Weakness is wordlessness. The weak never protest oppression as soon or as loudly as they justly could. The friendship can lull the stronger of a pair into taking silence as permission. But only permission is permission, and it is the moral obligation of the strong to give the weak space to deny permission. “Is that ok with you?” The wise leader asks this question, a hundred different ways, a hundred times a day, because he fears deference to his position.
Deference is not the same as the respect that leaders want and try to deserve. Deference is when the follower suppresses disagreements in order to just go along. Good leaders don’t want followers who just go along. It’s dangerous. Often, the followers have important opinions that can avert a disaster, and smart leaders work to create bold followers who don’t defer but rather, speak up.