What should I do if my boss asks me out?

It is not uncommon for coworkers to date.  In fact, meeting at work is one of the most common ways new couples form (accounting for 10-15% of all couples, with online dating accounting for almost half.)  It is also not uncommon for coworkers to develop romantic feelings for each other that are not always returned.  You may have had a crush on a coworker who did not feel the same way.  You may also have had a coworker have a crush on you.  Unrequited feelings can complicate any work situations, but things can get especially complicated when the person with those feelings has a position above the uninterested object of affection.  What should you do if you are in that situation, and your boss or someone else above you at work asks you out on a date?

Sexual harassment is illegal in the workplace.  It is illegal for your boss or your company to create or allow a work environment where harassment based on sex is so severe and pervasive, meaning serious and frequent, that a reasonable person would find it intolerable.  This means that you should not have to deal with unwanted sexual touching, unwanted sexual comments, or any other unwanted sexual behavior as a part of your job.  Sexual harassment is also illegal when it takes the form of “quid pro quo” harassment, or “this for that.”  This type of harassment exists where acceptance or rejection of sexual conduct is somehow tied to work conditions.  Examples could include offering a raise or promotion in exchange for sexual favors, or firing someone for rejecting romantic advances.

However, sexual harassment only counts as sexual harassment if it is unwanted AND if the employer is on notice.  It is not illegal under state or federal law for coworkers to date- not even supervisors and their subordinates.  While companies can decide to have policies against inter-office romance, or specifically romances between supervisors and the people they supervise, those types of relationships do not give rise to any sort of lawsuit if they are consensual.  If your boss asks you out, and you want to date him or her, you can say yes!  You should probably make sure that you won’t get in trouble at work first, but the legal system will not stand in the way of your happily ever after- or at least dinner and drinks.  This also means that it is not illegal for your boss to ask if you want to date, even if your answer is “no.”  Until your boss knows that you are not interested in a romantic relationship, he or she is not “on notice” that romantic advances are unwanted.  An inappropriate romantic gesture that goes too far, such as grabbing you in a private area or exposes a private area to you, would most likely be assumed to be unwelcome unless your boss already KNOWS the gesture is welcome, but merely asking whether you want to date is not sexual harassment in and of itself.

Of course, there are scenarios where your boss asking you on a date could lead to actionable sexual harassment.  If your boss asks you to go on a date, you say no, and nothing more happens, then there is no legal issue there.  However, what if your boss keeps asking you every day, or makes other inappropriate comments or engages in other inappropriate sexual behavior towards you even after you said you were not interested?  This could be considered “hostile work environment” sexual harassment, as long as the behavior is serious and frequent enough, because you already told your boss that you are not interested in a romantic relationship.  What if your work conditions are affected because you say no?  Maybe your boss is uncomfortable around you now and you get worse assignments or less hours- maybe you even get fired!  This could be considered “quid pro quo” harassment, since your rejection of romantic advances had a direct negative impact on your work.

If your boss asks you out, you have rights- including the right to say no.  You also have the right to work in an environment that is free of sexual harassment, and to continue you work without any negative impact from having said “no” to dating your boss.  If you believe you have experienced any type of sexual harassment or retaliation for having said “no,” call Gold Star Law for help.