Question:

I have been the only male in my small office for the past few years. The last time Valentine’s Day fell on a workday, as it does this year, I received flowers from my female co-workers. I’m simply not interested in a romantic relationship with any of them. The rest of the year is fine; we all work well together and there is no awkwardness. Should I say anything?

Answer:

If your co-workers are not trying to start a romantic relationship you do not want, and you like the flowers, you might say, “Thank you.” But if you feel you need to clarify misconceptions, or are concerned about workplace sexual harassment, explain that you are not interested and that the gift of flowers on Valentine’s Day makes you uncomfortable.

Unwanted sexual attention rises to the level of illegal harassment when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment. State and federal law prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, and employers have a duty to respond to employees’ complaints.

A recent appellate case illustrates what could be considered sexual harassment by a co-worker. In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Prospect Airport Services, Inc. a widowed male employee alleged that a married female co-worker sexually harassed him for over six months by giving him three or four explicitly sexual notes and a revealing photograph of herself, making lewd gestures and suggestive comments on a daily basis, and sending messages through co-workers who later mocked him. The woman continued with her propositions even after the man clearly informed her and his supervisors that the interest was not mutual and the woman’s actions were unwelcome. One supervisor told the man that he “did not want to get involved in personal matters.” Another supervisor said it was a joke and that he should walk around singing, “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” The man, who had been promoted previously, was demoted and then fired; he attributed his diminished work performance to the stress caused by the harassment. The court concluded the pervasiveness of the woman’s overtures and the inadequate response by the employer established a jury question of whether the man had suffered sexual harassment.

Had the woman quit pursuing him when he clearly told her no, the first note or two likely would not have constituted sexual harassment. As the court explained, “Not all propositions for romance or more are sexual harassment,” and “mere awkwardness is insufficient to establish the ‘severe or pervasive’ element.” What made the woman’s conduct especially troublesome was how it was repeated even after he told her, “I’m not interested,” and that he was “just not looking for any kind of thing like that.” The gender or attractiveness of the harasser is irrelevant for purposes of Title VII, the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment. As the court pointed out, “Title VII is not a beauty contest, and even if [the woman] looks like Marilyn Monroe, [the man] might not want to have sex with her, for all sorts of possible reasons.”

Another problem in the Prospect Airport Services case was the employer’s lack of response. The man’s immediate supervisor told him she would tell the woman to stop, but did not, and the other managers did not take his complaints seriously. An employer is liable for an employee’s sexual harassment of a co-worker if it knew, or should have known, about the harassment and failed to take prompt and effective remedial action.

The situation you describe seems, without knowing more, different than the one in the Prospect Airport Services case. The gift of flowers, a Valentine’s Day tradition, could be simply a kind gesture with no romantic intentions. Nevertheless, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, talk with your co-workers. If you still are concerned, speak with a supervisor. Clear communication in the workplace can prevent misunderstandings and other problems.
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