When Does Flirting Become Harassment in an Office Romance?

Posted February 13, 2012 in Labor and Employment by Courtney Sherwood

Photo: Daniel Moyle

Asking your crush out on a date is daunting enough when “I’m not interested” is the worst possible outcome. When the cutie you’ve been eying sits in the next cubicle, you could be risking your job if you go about it wrong.

The good news: dating a co-worker is perfectly legal. The bad news: That doesn’t mean it won’t get you fired.

If you’re hoping to kindle a workplace romance this Valentine’s Day, a little preparation can help you avoid a sexual harassment claim later, says attorney Sally Griffith Cimini, who chairs the employment practice group at Pittsburgh-based law firm Leech Tishman Fuscaldo & Lampl. Meanwhile, if you’re the recipient of unwanted advances, it’s a good idea to understand what’s reasonable and when your colleague has gone too far.

Before asking out a co-worker, you should check your company’s policies. Look under both “dating” and “harassment,” as offices may use either term to describe rules about workplace romance. You may also want to double check with human resources.

“Many employers prohibit dating amongst co-workers, particularly dating between a supervisor and subordinate,” Cimini said. “If dating is prohibited, you can’t do it.”

If dating is allowed, plan your next move carefully.

Sally Griffith Cimini

“It’s OK to express your interest in someone in a professional manner,” Cimini said. “You don’t want to send a lascivious note or email that can be misconstrued. Try a direct approach: ‘I really like you, I’d like to ask you out, but if you have a problem with that, it’s OK. We do work in the same place together.’ If they say no, take no for an answer. Don’t continue to press – that could be harassment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal job discrimination laws, defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

Because what’s welcome and entertaining to one person could be unwelcome and  mortifying to another, and because office policies are often more conservative than the EEOC, you should err on the side of caution whenever romance enters the office, Cimini said.

What if you’re on the receiving end of a colleague’s unwanted affection?

“When somebody makes a comment or asks somebody out, that doesn’t automatically constitute workplace harassment,” Cimini said. “The court looks at what a reasonable person in the victim’s shoes would have thought. Would somebody from the outside say, ‘This is really going too far’?”

Unwanted touching or especially crude language clearly crosses the line. Your pursuer could be violating workplace policies without violating the law, however. Even when no rules are broken, your supervisor or HR office may be able to help out.

“If it makes you feel uncomfortable, go speak to the human resources department,” Cimini said. “Employers are not anxious to consider everything workplace harassment. It may not rise to that level. You can say, ‘This bothers me. I don’t think it’s harassment but I want it to stop.”

Much of the time, just speaking up will bring an end to unwanted attention. If it doesn’t, or if your boss is the one putting the moves on you, it’s time to escalate, which could involve calling a lawyer.

“If you have followed your workplace harassment policy in the office and they are not responding, you might want to reach out to legal counsel or the EEOC, or a state agency,” Cimini said. “If your employer doesn’t have a policy and you complain to human resources, or to the owner in a small business, and nothing is done, then you might also want to reach out.”

Read more about sexual harassment in the workplace.

Worries about workplace harassment and corporate policies may quench the flames of passion, but if you tread carefully and follow the rules, you may just find that cupid’s on your side. Despite the risks, most workplace dating doesn’t result in litigation or disciplinary action. According to one recent study, about one office romance in five leads to a marriage proposal. 

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