Like so many legal answers, the real answer to this question is, “it depends.” As a general rule, no. Is it Sexual Harassment to Ask Out a Coworker? You can ask out just about anyone you want, assuming your company does not have anti-fraternization policies. We will set aside the issue of whether it is inappropriate or perhaps a bit unprofessional to ask out coworkers, you are legally permitted to ask coworkers out under most circumstances. Of course, many employers have strict policies that prohibit it, and for good reason. When relationships develop at work, it can negatively affect productivity, and when relationships fall apart, it can create an uncomfortable working environment for everyone.
At any rate, it is important to understand the nuance of what is meant by “ask out.” This phrase means different things to different people. To better understand this, it is necessary to first know exactly what sexual harassment is, and how the law views it.
What is Sexual Harassment?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes sexual harassment as follows:
- Unwelcome sexual advances
- Requests for sexual favors
- Other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
So, the key is whether the advances are welcome or not. If there is any question whatsoever that advances are unwelcome, then no, you should absolutely avoid making any advances toward a coworker (or anyone else for that matter).
If a coworker asked you out and you rejected the request, this should be the end of the discussion. If that coworker moves on to other matters and makes no further advances, then it is unlikely going to rise to the level of harassment. After all, the key is unwelcome advances. Once you made it known that the advances were unwelcome, if the coworker respected your wishes and proceeds to behave professionally from then on, there should not be a problem.
Unfortunately, this is not usually what happens. If that coworker continues to “hit on” you or ask you out, this may be harassment.
Advances From Supervisors
Things become much clearer when it comes to superiors in the workplace. If a superior is making advances and asking out subordinates, it can create a quid pro quo scenario, wherein the employee feels as though the job, money, promotions, career advancement, and so forth are contingent upon giving in to the superior's advances. This is definitely a big problem and one that should be cause for concern.
Sexual Jokes, Teasing, and Comments
The law does not expressly say that people have to be prudes or avoid all humor and lighthearted fun. We all want to work around people we like. We all want to be able to let our guard down and have a good time without worrying about things going too far. Sexual harassment occurs when a line is crossed between welcome and mutual jokes and something that is so serious, frequent or pervasive that it could be described as hostile. Unfortunately, that line can be hard to clearly identify.
Is it Sexual Harassment to Ask Out a Coworker?
If a coworker or superior occasionally makes an odd joke, but it does not really bother you or anyone else, it is not likely harassment. Perhaps it is just poor taste. But if this happens on a regular basis and is clearly creating an unpleasant and hostile working environment, then it is a problem. Likewise, if the severity of the behavior creates an adverse employment decision, such as you being fired for bringing up your concerns or for not engaging in the conduct, then it may very well be sexual harassment.
Talk to a Sexual Harassment Lawyer First
Sadly, the law is not 100% black and white in the area of workplace harassment. Often these cases are full of nuance and gray areas that require the skilled analysis of an experienced employment attorney who can compare your unique situations to hundreds of prior court decisions with similar facts. By looking at how courts and the EEOC have ruled in the past, an attorney can help you better understand your chances of success if you bring a claim for harassment. This is why it is important to talk to a lawyer early, before things get worse. For a free consultation, call us today.