Valentine's Day is a time for celebrating love. But when it comes to workplace relationships, it can be difficult to know where to draw the line between love and sexual harassment. This article discusses how to set appropriate boundaries for workplace relationships, including implementing workplace training to further employee education about potential workplace harassment.
What is a Workplace Relationship?
Broadly defined, a workplace relationship refers to the connection an employee makes with their coworker, supervisor, or subordinate. Sometimes, this bond turns into a very close friendship, especially when working in close proximity or when communicating frequently about a shared project. Having a good working relationship with your colleagues is healthy. What is not healthy is when a workplace relationship turns into workplace harassment.
Any unwanted behavior that makes someone feel uncomfortable or offended can be classified as workplace harassment. This behavior is typically consistent and persists over time, but one-time incidents can also be considered harassment if they have a significant impact on the victim. A few examples of harassment in a workplace relationship could be: offensive, sexual, or racially charged jokes; showing an image or video that makes a colleague uncomfortable; unwelcome touching or brushing up against a coworker’s body or hair; or teasing/name-calling that makes someone feel embarrassed or intimidated. These types of harassment can also occur in remote workplaces.
Can You Ask a Coworker on a Date?
We may all aspire to Jim and Pam’s relationship on the popular TV show, “The Office,” but there can certainly be conflicts and risks to starting a relationship with a coworker. First, we must consider whether it is sexual harassment to ask a coworker on a date. Based on the definition of workplace harassment, an average, reasonable person will not be offended if a colleague asks them out once — as long as that ask is polite, and not vulgar or pushy.
It might make things a bit awkward at work but, in most situations, asking out a coworker doesn't warrant complaint-filing or legal action. However, if someone repeatedly asks their coworker for a date or continually makes unwanted advances, then it can veer into the realm of harassment. Additionally, if one person has a hierarchical advantage within the office, these power dynamics could make their subordinates feel greater pressure to go on a date or tolerate other unwelcome behavior out of fear of retaliation.
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What if Coworkers Become Romantic?
Alternatively, what if two colleagues consensually go on a date and things go well? Romantic relationships can still be a loaded issue in the workplace, which is why some companies write strict policies that limit or ban it. If the relationship starts to go south, it could disrupt an otherwise positive work environment with potentially unprofessional behavior. If a break-up occurs, it can also bring drama and inappropriate behavior into the office, including manipulation of coworkers to “pick a side.”
Even in a healthy relationship, dynamics are likely to change among both those in the relationship and their fellow colleagues. For example, overuse of PDA, or public displays of affection, in the workplace is usually considered unprofessional and can make others uncomfortable. Additionally, choosing a significant other for an assignment can sometimes be seen as favoritism or a conflict of interest. This is also where supervisors dating subordinates can get especially tricky.
Potential Benefits of Workplace Relationships
Going back to platonic relationships, there are certainly benefits when coworkers bond and form friendships with one another. According to the National Business Research Institute, employee satisfaction grows by nearly 50% when employees develop close relationships in the workplace. A positive work culture can improve team efforts in the workplace, resulting in both increased productivity and job satisfaction among employees. Respectful relationships mean that employee collaboration can happen more often, producing more creative endeavors and even leading to a more frequent transfer of skills among coworkers. Positive workplace relationships can also improve both employee retention rates and make recruiting and onboarding new employees easier too.
How to Avoid Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
In order to prevent sexual harassment in your workplace, it is important to establish a comprehensive code of conduct with clear policies on interoffice dating and unwelcome behavior. Your code of conduct should also detail the reporting process for someone experiencing harassment — and encourage employees to file their claim without fear of retaliation. Providing training and education about workplace harassment can also help employees learn how to identify and report unwelcome behavior in a work environment.
EasyLlama’s Harassment & Discrimination training can guide employers and employees through strategies, solutions, and best practices for preventing harassment in the workplace. Legislation may vary between states and countries, and EasyLlama provides a variety of courses to address both these differences as well as real-life scenarios across a variety of industries. Improve the corporate culture and make your organization safer by implementing EasyLlama’s comprehensive harassment prevention training today! Access your free course preview to learn more.