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When Workplace Relationships Lead to Harassment

Posted on November 13, 2018 | Firm News

As most people know, 2018 was the year of the #MeToo movement. One strong voice became many, as women and men came out in force to raise awareness of sexual assault. They let the world know they weren’t going to stand by and allow sexual harassment to continue in the workplace – or anywhere else, for that matter.

It Began as a Friendly Co-Worker Environment

When does a workplace relationship turn into a situation that becomes unhealthy or toxic? Worldwide, Human Resource professionals are trying to navigate their way through this difficult topic. For some, the line between friendly banter and harassment isn’t clear. Unfortunately, they are often the same people who don’t stop making inappropriate comments or actions even after someone has been vulnerable enough to ask.

The Challenge of Inter-Office Relationships

The workplace is where many people meet their significant others – it’s often the place they spend the most time. Platonic friendships may evolve into serious romantic relationships. The trouble often starts, however, during this phase, when one person is looking for a more serious relationship and another feels like this person crosses a line into harassment.

Understanding the difference between consensual workplace relationships and harassment can be confusing to some. Many businesses try to curtail any workplace romance to ensure it doesn’t fall into harassment, but such efforts often make the situation worse – parties that are consensual or feeling harassed may be afraid to bring the problem to human resources or a superior. All companies should adopt a standard policy regarding workplace relationships; the company handbook should make clear any rules and regulations about relationships.

How Do You Know You’re Being Harassed?

If you are uncomfortable in the workplace because of sexual advances, unwanted friendships, or inappropriate conduct, state laws would likely define this as sexual harassment. Discuss your experience with one of our employment lawyers for help determining if what you are experiencing is a legal issue. Sexual harassment takes on many forms, a few of which include: 

  • A co-worker continually making unwanted sexual advances or requests for sex
  • Verbal or physical abuse by the perpetrator, which affects your work
  • Rejection of sexual advances that jeopardizes your work status
  • Sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Another type of workplace harassment is quid pro quo harassment. This occurs when the employer expects a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion, a raise, or even the ability to keep a job. When rejection of unwanted advancements affects your job, the law would define this type of experience as quid pro quo. It’s one of the most egregious types of harassments because victims are often afraid to report the issue for fear of losing their jobs.

Hostile Work Environments

Hostile work environments occur when employers or other employees make working at the company difficult, due to the rejection of sexual advances. Hostile work environments interfere with the ability to do one’s job and can disrupt the total workplace environment. Usually, this behavior comes from a superior, but it can from a colleague. If a victim reports it and superiors don’t take the complaint seriously, they could be responsible.

The Role of Human Resources

HR should have an open-door policy to discuss any issues whether they involve a consensual romantic relationship or a problematic issue concerning harassment. Sexual harassment training for all employees is a great idea. It should emphasize what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior in the workplace.

Sexual harassment charges are very time-sensitive. If you’ve suffered harassment, report it to human resources or a superior immediately. You should also consider discussing your case with an attorney.