Compliance Blog

Is Asking Out a Coworker Considered Sexual Harassment?

September 7, 2021 | Blaine Oelschlegel

The shift to more employees working remotely hasn’t put a stop to workplace romances — or people wondering if asking a coworker out is sexual harassment. The short answer is no — it is not illegal to ask a coworker out on a date. That said, there are some practical guidelines that can help ensure that asking out a coworker doesn’t cross the line into illegal harassment. 

Following these 4 guidelines can help keep things professional and appropriate:

  1. Ask once, and if the answer is no and it stops there, that’s not harassment. However, if the person persists in asking the coworker out, and/or makes unwelcome advances, tells offense jokes or discusses their sex life or fantasies, it’s a problem. These are all behaviors that can lead to claims of sexual harassment. 
  2. Everyone should comply with their organization’s dating policy and code of conduct. A dating policy should set clear boundaries for workplace romances and clarify what is and isn’t acceptable. Some organizations require that employees who are in a relationship with a coworker notify their manager or HR. And often dating policies restrict managers or others who are in a sensitive or influential position in the organization from having romantic relationships with people who work for them or are in their chain of command. And there are consequences for failing to follow the organization’s policy it can lead to being reprimanded or fired.
  3. Rules apply in the remote workplace. Dating policies, codes of conduct and other workplace policies and laws pertaining to harassment, discrimination and bullying apply whether employees are interacting in person or remotely. Some people are actually more prone to harassing behaviors when they are hiding behind a computer and not face-to-face with coworkers. In addition, the casual feel of working from home can lead some employees to feel more relaxed about what they say or do in email, texts, video calls, online chats and social media.
  4. If your organization does allow coworkers to date, it’s important to regularly communicate the need to keep those relationships professional and not let them affect the work environment, team dynamics and productivity.

    Because sexual conduct must be unwelcome to constitute harassment, consensual relationships are not considered harassment. Romantic relationships can, however, involve complicated issues such as favoritism and breakups. And when workplace relationships go from consensual to non-consensual, claims of sexual harassment and hostile work environment can rise. 

Traliant Insight

While personal relationships at work are common, even as more employes work remotely, repeatedly asking coworkers out when they are clearly not interested can constitute sexual harassment. Implementing a dating policy and communicating clear guidelines on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior can help organizations reduce the risk of romantic relationships at work turning into sexual harassment claims.

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