Is It Sexual Harassment To Ask A Coworker On A Date?

Is It Sexual Harassment To Ask A Coworker On A Date?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is unlawful -- but is it unlawful for co-workers to date each other?

Even though politely asking a colleague on a date once is not a crime -- being pushy about it can quickly turn into harassment, which is a crime. Read on for a definition of what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace -- and a discussion of why one should think twice before dating a coworker, even if it's not against the law or company policy.

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What Behaviors Constitute Harassment At The Workplace?

While some workplace harassment is malicious, it is possible to commit harassment without realizing it (which is why anti-sexual harassment workforce training is imperative in preventing future instances of sexual harassment as well as avoiding potential liabilities!)

Ultimate Guide To State And Local Harassment Prevention Training Requirements

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Legal Definition Of Sexual Harassment

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has made it illegal for employers to permit anyone to be sexually harassed at their place of work by anyone else, regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) -- the federal entity charged with enforcing employment rights -- provide the following definition:

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Sexual harassment spans a wide spectrum of inappropriate behaviors, from lewd jokes to sexual assault (in the latter case, the victim is encouraged not only to file a sexual harassment claim but to call the law enforcement!) Sexual harassment is not limited to unwelcome advances from the opposite sex: anyone on the workplace premises can victimize anyone else with inappropriate behaviors regardless of gender.

So, Is Asking A Co-Worker Out Considered Harassment Or Not?

The legality of whether asking a coworker out is "ok" depends on how it is done.

An average reasonable person will not be horribly inconvenienced, offended, or traumatized if a colleague askes them out once -- politely and without being vulgar or pushy. It can make things a bit awkward at work but, in most situations, such a circumstance doesn't warrant complaint-filing or legal action.

"Unwelcome" Behavior

When it comes to understanding if a behavior constitutes harassment, the deciding factor is whether the sexual attention being expressed is welcome or not.

A coworker may be flirting up a storm with another coworker -- and the appropriateness and wisdom of this behavior may be highly questionable -- however, if the coworker being flirted with does not find it objectionable, it cannot be categorized as "sexual harassment" -- simply because the "target" does not feel harassed.

On the other hand, however "nice"/"friendly" one may think they're being, if the object of their interest does not respond positively to their advances, it is imperative to back off after the first "no" -- and never pursue the topic again! If a coworker continues to push on after their initial request for a date had been declined, the conduct can quickly spiral into sexual harassment territory -- because it is unwelcome.

If you believe you are being violated by a coworker, take our sexual harassment quiz.

Why Romantic Relationships Are A "Loaded" Issue At The Workplace

Romance in the workplace is fraught with potential liabilities, which is why some (not all) companies write strict policies that limit or ban it.

If the company has no such policy, it's still worth taking a moment to consider if asking a co-worker on a date is worth the risks.

When A Co-Worker Is Rejected

Some people take rejection with less grace than others -- and you can bet that the less graceful ones do not hesitate to bring the "drama" into the office, sabotaging workplace productivity and morale.

When Co-Workers Start Dating

Once a couple starts dating, whether it works out or not, it may disrupt the existing workplace balance in some way.

If The Relationship Works, It Can Affect Workplace Productivity

As fun as it can be to date a coworker, the dynamic between the two people is likely to change -- and, if they are not careful, it can compromise their productivity, professionalism, and relationships with other coworkers. For example, coworkers who are dating can be accused of showing each other favoritism over other team members: whether that is true or not, it is very hard to refute.

If The Relationship Fails, It Can Create A Hostile Environment At The Workplace

"Clean breaks" are never guaranteed when romantic entanglements end. As such, post-break-up "hard feelings" can manifest in all sorts of inappropriate behaviors at the office, typically either when someone refuses to "let go" of the other, or when someone is embittered and tries to exact revenge against their "ex" by undermining them at work. When individuals begin to manipulate their position at work to reach those goals, people and businesses suffer.

Workplace Romance Can Involve Abuses Of Power

Things only get more complicated when an interaction of romantic nature happens between a supervisor and their underling.

When one person has a hierarchical advantage over another in career and finance, there is a greater possibility that the victim will feel pressured to tolerate unwelcome behavior, fearing retaliation from their boss (to be clear, retaliating against employees in any way for exercising their right to file a workplace sexual harassment claim is unlawful!)

The bottom line is that, when co-workers date, there is an increased risk of sexual harassment to each individual involved -- and an increased risk of legitimate (as well as frivolous) sexual harassment claims filed with the HR department or the EEOC.

Prevent Sexual Harassment At Your Business With The Best Training!

When it comes to the employer's responsibility in preventing workplace sexual harassment, it is infinitely less costly to take preventative measures than post-disaster disciplinary action.

EasyLlama Has The Training For Your Workforce!

Educate your employees to be self- and socially aware when it comes to expressing a romantic interest in a coworker!

EasyLlama offers top-rated anti-harassment training for the general workforce as well as for the leadership. It will leave each employee better prepared to navigate the nuances of what is considered appropriate/acceptable/respectful conduct at work -- and what behaviors should be checked at the door.

Written by: Maria Malyk

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