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What to Do When Workplace Relationships Lead to Harassment

May 15, 2018

SHRM
By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, SHRM-SCP, J.D.

Sexual harassment prevention and response are hot topics right now, but HR professionals may still be wondering how to navigate the less-clear issues of workplace friendships and office romance. What behavior is acceptable and what goes too far?

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“What may be acceptable one day may not be acceptable the next day,” said Frank Chernak, chair of the labor and employment practice at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia.

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Beyond sexual harassment, conduct that addresses, identifies or singles out people based on protected traits like age, disability, gender, national origin, race, religion and sex is usually not acceptable in the workplace, Chernak noted.

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In most situations, co-workers can ask an employee to go out on a date. “But that doesn’t mean the employee can ask a co-worker out on 10 straight days,” Chernak said. “At some point, the friendly asking out on a date can become harassment.”

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The employer should know about such a relationship and should ensure that the manager has no way to affect the terms and conditions of the worker’s employment, Chernak said, noting that additional issues arise if there’s an appearance of favoritism because of the relationship.

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Supervisors must be trained on how to handle complaints and should understand what situations require them to notify or involve HR, Chernak said. In addition to training, companies should have clear anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies.

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