Office Romances & Sexual Harassment

When relationships at work end, employers could face legal claims when someone that was involved in the relationship thinks that s/he has suffered an adverse employment action (e.g., termination or demotion) because of that romance. For example, a terminated employee might claim that s/he was fired for ending the relationship. Efforts to rekindle the romance could disintegrate into sexual harassment or assault allegations. Even if the relationship thrives, where the office relationship involves supervisors and subordinates, there is an imbalance of power which can give rise to the marginalization of those subordinate employees outside of the relationship. This can ostracize those employees, giving rise to claims of sexual favoritism and discrimination. Other employees could potentially be put off by claims of favoritism, depending on whether there is a manager/subordinate relationship involved. Employers should be aware of the potential legal ramifications associated with sexual favoritism. Claims of sexual favoritism typically arise when a supervisor enters into a romantic relationship with a subordinate, which causes other subordinate employees to believe they are being discriminated against. Sexual favoritism could be regarded as discrimination if it presents as widespread mistreatment based on gender.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can present itself in a number of ways, but it often involves unwanted and unwelcome sexual conduct. Sexual harassment in the workplace falls under two classifications (i) “quid pro quo” sexual harassment, and (ii) hostile work environment. Quid pro quo is Latin, meaning “this for that.” An example of quid pro quo harassment is when a supervisor seeks sexual favors in return for an employment benefit (e.g., a raise) or to allow a subordinate employee to avoid an employment detriment (e.g., a demotion). For sexual harassment to exist, it must be unwelcome conduct. Consensual workplace romances do not involve unwelcome conduct; therefore, it would not constitute sexual harassment. Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when an employee works in an environment where there is conduct that is so offensive or intimidating, on the basis of that employee’s sex/gender, that it alters the terms and conditions of that employee’s employment.2

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