We all know that sexual harassment at the workplace is, by definition, illegal. But it is also the case that there is nothing inherently wrong with romances developing between co-workers. In fact, one survey found nearly one out of five couples meet through work, and even our current president met his wife when he was a summer associate at her law firm. But when a romantic or sexual advance is unwanted, and especially when it is your boss that is hitting on you, you may be wondering whether things have entered into illegal territory, and what you should do next.
What Exactly Did the Boss Do or Say?
If your boss simply complimented you in a way that was not meant to provoke or harass you and was not overly suggestive, this alone likely does not rise to the level of harassment. The same is true if your boss asked if you would like to go on a date or otherwise spend time together outside of your work, as such an isolated, non-threatening, non-suggestive invitation is likely not harassment. And if you are receptive to/welcome the invitation, then it would be unlikely to be considered harassment under state or federal law. After all, coworker dating in and of itself is not illegal. (It may be against company policy, so you may want to check with HR first.)
Harassment issue arise, however, when the following types of circumstances occur:
- You ask your boss to stop making flirtatious remarks about and he/she won’t stop
- You decline your boss’s invitations, but he/she keeps on asking you
- The boss threatens you for rejecting his/her advances, or demotes you in response
- The boss makes unwanted advances of a sexual nature
- The boss offers you work benefits in exchange for sexual favors
- The boss makes physical contact of a sexual nature
Steps You Can Take In Response
Victims of sexual harassment are often made to feel bad about themselves by others in the workplace. Other workers may say that you invited the harassment, or may simply not feel sympathy for you. Supervisors and administrators may also do the same, and might discourage you from taking actions that would either reflect badly on them or the company. But under no circumstances should you be expected to tolerate sexual harassment on the job.
If your boss’ actions have risen to the level of harassment (i.e. he/she has asked you out repeatedly after being denied, or lashed out at you for rejecting an invitation), then you can and should take one of the following responses:
- Contact to Human Resources: Bring up specific examples of the harassment. Be sure to document your contact in writing. This can be by first sending an email and then talking to HR, or talking to them and then sending a follow up email. The HR department should understand state and federal laws relating to sexual harassment, and it is their job to create a workplace free from sexual harassment. Be prepared to act on what the HR department tells you in return. Unfortunately, when supervisors and executives are powerful or intimidating, they may not respond to HR or HR employees may not take action in order to protect their own status in the company.
- Contact an Employment Law Attorney: Again, the HR department may not be able or willing to sufficiently address sexual harassment in the workplace (or you may not have an HR department in your company). Even if they are, this does not excuse sexual harassment and you may have the basis of a harassment case against the boss and potentially the company as well. An experienced employment law attorney will listen to your story, work to investigate the facts, and can potentially reach a confidential settlement with the wrongdoer and the company or bring a harassment claim if needed.
At Sessions and Kimball, we exclusively represent employees against employers. If you believe you may have been the victim of harassment, contact one of our harassment attorneys today to discuss the next steps.