Interpersonal communication is often inherently challenging, especially when it involves romantic overtures. It can be hard for people to communicate effectively or to understand the meaning behind people’s words and nonverbal communication.
What some people do as a form of social lubrication others take seriously. Poor communication can lead to unreciprocated attraction and eventually, harassment. Sexual tensions in the workplace that lead to flirting can eventually snowball into harassment claims against the company.
What starts out as a little harmless flirting or an invitation on a date can eventually become a source of stress or even damage to someone’s career. When does flirting cross that line into something inappropriate?
When someone leverages their position of authority
Perhaps the most obvious reason that flirting or asking someone out on a date becomes sexual harassment is a scenario where an abuse of power occurs. People can leverage their position within the company to try to influence the decisions or actions of others.
For example, someone in a managerial or supervisory position tries to coerce someone of lower rank or possibly even a direct subordinate into a romantic or intimate encounter. If a worker believes the request will impact their job, they may feel like they can’t say no.
What was once simply flirting or requests could quickly cross into quid pro quo sexual harassment. If someone in a position of authority offers special consideration for sexual or romantic favors, that behavior is likely quid pro quo sexual harassment.
When incessant flirting results in a hostile work environment
Flirting can build people up and make them feel a sense of playful camaraderie. It could also make them feel alienated, singled out and vulnerable. When one worker repeatedly flirts with another or when a group of workers targets others for flirtatious advances, people witnessing that behavior may feel uncomfortable.
The more aggressive or inappropriate the flirting, the stronger the negative impact it could have on employees. When one person asks someone to stop flirting or expressing interest, the other individual should comply with that request.
If the company turns a blind eye to unsolicited flirting and advances that make one employee uncomfortable, that worker might be in a position to take legal action against the company for allowing sexual harassment to occur.