Is love in the air, or is it harassment?

January 14, 2014
in Featured Article,HR / Employee Relations

Because most people spend an awful lot of their waking time at the office or workplace, many romantic relationships start there. Although it might be tempting, it would be virtually impossible to ban flirtation and its natural culmination—a relationship or rejection—just because the parties met at work.

But keep in mind not all flirtation is welcome and some heartfelt symbols of a worker’s genuine interest in another can be just as legally damaging as hateful vulgarities or demands for sex. If the advances are unwanted by the target and the would-be paramour can’t take no for an answer, you need to step in before these symbols of affection become evidence of sexual harassment.

In deciding whether a romantic gesture crosses the legal line, the U.S. Supreme Court dictates looking at the totality of the circumstances, including the following four factors. Below, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that an executive’s pursuit of an employee could amount to hostile environment sexual harassment.

  1. Frequency of the conduct. During a five-year period, the male executive allegedly touched the female employee almost every time she entered a room, including touching her leg 10 to 20 times on one occasion.
  2. Its severity. Based on the frequency of the executive’s hugs, kisses and groping (some of which occurred in public), the conduct was sufficiently severe.
  3. Whether it is physically threatening or humiliating. An employee need not feel physically threatened; humiliation is an equal consideration. The exec allegedly “mortified” and “embarrassed” the employee by failing to dispel rumors that they were a couple; sending her roses at work; telling people at a company banquet that she was not his date, but he wished she were; and publicly offering her and her boyfriend $1 million if she would spend the night with him.
  4. Whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. Harassment need not be so extreme that it produces tangible effects on job performance in order to be actionable. The appeals court held that a jury could reasonably infer that the exec’s open pursuit of the employee made it more difficult for her to perform her job and command the respect of her subordinates. (Myers v. Central Florida Investments, Inc.)

If an employee complains that a co-worker’s actions are making him/her feel uncomfortable, investigate immediately. If the advances amount to sexual harassment, your investigation will not only put a stop to the behavior, but will also go a long way in averting liability if the employee later files a sexual harassment lawsuit.

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