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Can’t fight this feeling anymore

Is expressing one’s feelings to a co-worker or subordinate sexual harassment?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

We are all emotional beings in one way or another. Some people keep their feelings hidden, while others can’t help but express them. But how does this translate to the workplace? Employers — and many of their employees — prefer that people maintain a professional demeanour at work. But the reality is people can develop a more personal or casual rapport, and this can be beneficial in some ways. But things can get tricky when romantic feelings develop.

A couple of years ago, a British Columbia executive got into some hot water when he confessed to his administrative assistant he had romantic feelings for her. The assistant hadn’t been working for the exec for very long, but they had developed chemistry quickly and got along well. One day, he told her how he felt and gave her a list of things the assistant described as “incredibly intimate” with the title “Reasons Why I Think You Love Me Too.” Not long after, the assistant quit and filed a sexual harassment complaint. Her time of service was a little more than one month in total.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal found there was no discrimination. In the short time the assistant worked for the exec, the two spoke often about personal matters and she was aware of his attraction to her. In fact, the assistant often raised the subject of his marriage, sex life and attraction to her herself. The tribunal found this conduct showed the assistant felt comfortable, didn’t show any fear of adverse consequences to her employment and she created or significantly contributed to the sexually charged environment in the office. Within this environment, the exec’s conduct wasn’t “normal social interaction” but was accepted by both parties.

The tribunal also found the balance of power between their positions wasn’t a factor and may have even been reversed.  The exec’s confession of his feelings was “an acknowledgement of weakness” which gave the assistant some power in the relationship, said the tribunal.

Maintaining a professional environment is important, but people do have feelings. Does being honest with someone about feelings qualify as sexual harassment? Should an employee face sexual harassment accusations for expressing his feelings to a co-worker? If two employees have a personal rapport that sometimes goes outside normal professional boundaries but both are willing participants, at what point does it become harassment, or should it at all?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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