According to Nicholas D. Smith in response to a question about sexual harassment legislation, "The minute someone in that place begins to give sexual attention to someone else in that workplace, the environment is changed--and changed in a way that makes the workplace no longer an entirely comfortable place to work." However the fact of the matter is that a great many people marry their coworkers and that studies show only a small percentage of those relationship were started by people who accidentally met up outside of work. If the purpose of sexual harassment legislation is to ban all interaction of a sexual nature between coworkers (since all sexual attention makes the workplace an uncomfortable place to work) then those marriages could not have occurred if sexual harassment law was 100% effective in achieving its supposed purpose. Since marriage is a highly regarded social institution isn't it highly unlikely that the purpose of sexual harassment legislation is to ban all sexual interaction between coworkers? And furthermore isn't it simply untrue that sexual attention is necessarily uncomfortable if it takes place in the workplace?

I think you are right, work is a major site of important relationships, and one cannot legislate that only professional relationships will be acceptable there. On the other hand, one can see why it is wrong to pervert a workplace in the name of a personal relationship, so I think the relevant issue is whether any such perversion takes place. Does the workplace become an uncomfortable environment for anyone as a result of personal relationships? This might be inevitable if someone has broken off an affair with a colleague and perhaps commenced another one with someone else in the same workplace. On the other hand, it might be argued that one has to get used to the idea that there may be people at work who are annoying, perhaps just because of who they are, how they dress, how far they have been promoted, and as professionals we need to cope with that and not allow it to distract us from our duties. We also ought not to allow a personal relationship to bias us in favour of particular colleagues as opposed to others.

Having admitted that is something of which we should be aware, we should then move onto considering ways of treating everyone fairly even if we cannot ignore our personal relationships with some of them. We cannot check our character at the door of the workplace and then assume it again when we leave. On the other hand, we should have enough control and self-awareness to make a decent job of operating fairly at work, as in other aspects of our lives.

As Nicholas said in response to the other question, there are questions to be asked about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. And, while there are companies that prohibit co-workers from dating, most do not, which is simply to say that sexual harassment policies are not in general intended to prohibit all sexual interaction between co-workers, but only such interaction as, first, is unwelcome or unwanted and, second, constitutes a form of harassment.

Even unwelcome sexual attention, by itself, does not constitute harassment, according to the definition promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but only if:

  1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

The first two conditions are kind of obvious. It is the last condition that can be harder to evaluate, in practice.

Asking someone out on a date, for example, all by itself, certainly would not constitute harassment under this definition. Indeed, as I understand it, merely asking someone out does not constitute an expression of "sexual interest", but of romantic interest, which is different. That said, the line here is blurry, and if the person doing the asking is in a position of authority over the other person, then we are on dangerous ground, since then condition (1) or (2) may be met. And repeatedly asking someone out could constitute harassment, as could asking every woman in the company out, since it is easy to see how condition (3) could be met in such a case.

Telling someone flat out that you'd love to get them in the sack is something else entirely. Most people would not receive such a remark as a compliment, for the simple reason that such a remark, made outside an appropriate sort of context or relationship, does not express any real appreciation for the other person, but only how that person might be used to satisfy one's own selfish desires. People rightly feel "objectified" by such comments and, as a result, self-conscious and otherwise uncomfortable, and that is why making such remarks can easily satisfy condition (3). That said, however, a single such remark probably does not constitute harassment, but a pattern of making such remarks very likely would.

That said, companies have a right and duty to ensure that the workplace is free of intimidation, and they also have an interest in protecting themselves from litigation. So a company might have rules that prohibit the making of such remarks, for example, even though making one such remark might not constitute harassment. Such rules are perfectly understandable, seen from this point of view.

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