With the recent focus on the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, many employees may be questioning their own judgment when it comes to interactions with co-workers. It is not always easy to discern the difference between sincere communication with good intentions, and unlawful sexual harassment.
It is probably not sexual harassment if you ask a colleague out on a date. In fact, a study from the popular job site CareerBuilder found that nearly 40 percent of participants have dated a co-worker, and 31 percent ended up marrying someone with whom they worked.
However, not all employees take no for an answer that easily. Persistent overtures that are obviously unwelcome or cross the line into more serious and threatening behaviors may be sexual discrimination. And that is illegal in the United States.
This discussion focuses on sexual harassment laws in Pennsylvania and practical guidelines to keep your office relationships appropriate and professional.
What Is Considered Sexual Harassment under the Law?
If you have a romantic interest in someone you work with, it is normal to be apprehensive about asking them on a date. With all the talk of workplace harassment in the news lately, you may be questioning what is, and what is not, acceptable behavior.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is probably the best starting point to explain unlawful sexual harassment. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
Sexual harassment is one form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII. It can consist of many different behaviors, including requests for sexual favors and unwelcome sexual advances.
It is also harassment when a co-worker engages in verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature and either implicitly or explicitly implies the other person’s submission or rejection of the behavior will affect their job.
An example of this form of sexual harassment would be if a manager asks their employee to send them suggestive photos and hints that if they do, the manager will give them a promotion.
If you ask your co-worker on a date and they say yes, that is great. If they say they are not interested, that is okay too, as long as you go accept their answer and continue working as before with the same professional demeanor.
Additional Facts about Workplace Harassment
There are many misconceptions about sexual harassment. One is that it occurs only between a man and a woman. That is not true. The victim and the harasser can be the same gender or any gender for that matter.
A harasser can be nearly anyone associated with the workplace: a supervisor, a co-worker, an agent of the employer, or someone not employed by the company such as a client or customer.
The victim is not always the person who is being directly harassed. Employees who witness the behavior and are affected by it can also be victims.
Finally, for a certain act or pattern of behavior to meet the legal threshold of sexual harassment, it must be unwanted. A mutual office romance is not likely to be sexual harassment, unless one partner breaks it off and the other becomes hostile and aggressive after being rejected.
The harasser knows, or should know, their behavior is offensive and unwelcome for unlawful harassment to exist.
How Employees Can Avoid a Sexual Harassment Complaint
If you are attracted to a co-worker, it is important to remember certain guidelines to be a good employee, respect your colleagues, and stay within the law.
Here are some practical tips for handling an office romance.
- Accept rejection with grace. Ask your co-worker out just once. If they say no or give a vague, noncommittal answer, it must stop there. If you continue to pursue them after they have made it clear they are not interested, you are veering into dangerous territory. Avoid persistent advances, offensive jokes, observations about their appearance, and questions about their sex life altogether.
- Check your company’s code of conduct. Many employers have specific dating policies. That code of conduct should clarify what is acceptable regarding workplace romances. For example, some companies require employees to notify Human Resources if they are romantically involved with a co-worker. Other companies prohibit dating between employees in the same chain of command. It is best to check your employee handbook before you ask a colleague out on a date.
- Always stay professional. Whether your coworker says yes or no to the date, always maintain a professional demeanor when working. If a romance blossoms, never discuss personal matters at work or make co-workers feel uncomfortable. That can impact the team dynamic and interfere with productivity.
- Remember the same rules apply to the remote office. During the pandemic, millions of workers started working from home. As employers saw the benefits of the virtual workspace for employee morale, cutting costs, and greater flexibility, many opted to continue remote work even as public spaces began opening. But even if you work from home, you should know the same rules and laws regarding sexual harassment still apply to the virtual office. Just because you are not sharing the same physical space as your office crush, any unwanted and aggressive sexual advances can still be considered unlawful harassment and punished accordingly.
What if My Boss Keeps Asking Me Out and Will Not Take No for an Answer?
First and foremost, tell your boss you are not interested, and you want them to stop pursuing you.
If they do not take the hint after you have declined their advances and made it clear you are uncomfortable, you should notify your employer. After all, prolonged, aggressive, and unwanted behavior of a sexual nature creates a hostile work environment, and you do not have to be subjected to that.
Every organization should have a specific procedure for filing a written complaint. Follow your company’s protocols, always keeping a copy of your written statement. Record all of the times, dates, and details of sexual harassment incidents. If you have any evidence of harassment such as texts, emails, or letters, save them as well.
Your employer is required to investigate the claim and make a determination. If they do not take steps to stop the behavior or you experience retaliation for speaking out, you can go a step further and file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or the corresponding agency in your state.
From there, your claim will either be investigated or dismissed. You and your employer may be asked to participate in mediation to arrive at a voluntary settlement. If a settlement cannot be reached, or the agency does not find that harassment occurred, you can consider taking legal action.
It is not uncommon or unusual for co-workers to fall in love. But dating a colleague should come with common sense and a commitment to leave romance at home. Now that you know more about sexual harassment laws in Pennsylvania, you can make smart choices when it comes to asking out a co-worker.
Philadelphia Employment Discrimination Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Protect Workers’ Rights
If you have been a victim of workplace discrimination or sexual harassment, the Philadelphia employment discrimination lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. can help. With our experience handling complex civil rights cases across the state, we are prepared and ready to defend your right to a safe workplace. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.