Can being ‘overly friendly’ equal harassment?

The HR Specialist of Business Management Daily has a timely article on harassment issues in corporate America.

Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on sex. And sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.

Essentially, the law protects employees from harassment because of sex.

However, that doesn’t mean every unwanted work relationship is sexual harassment. The harassment has to be directly related to the person’s gender to rise to the level of sexual harassment.

As this new ruling shows, if an employee has an obsessive interest in a co-worker that’s unrelated to sex, it won’t meet the harassment threshold.

Recent case: Lucia Guarino began working at a New York college as an adjunct faculty member after a professor recommended her. She later recommended that Guarino be offered a full-time tenure-track position, which she accepted.

Then the professor began to develop what might be described as an unhealthy or even obsessive interest in being close to Guarino. This push for friendship was devoid of sexual overtures, passes or other acts typically seen in sexual harassment cases.

Instead, the professor would tell Guarino things like “I need you. Where would I be without you? Everything would just fall apart,” and “You are amazing, you are great, you are incredible.”

Guarino complained to her supervisors, telling them she believed the professor was trying to get her involved in a romantic relationship. The college did nothing about the problem, and Guarino sued, alleging sexual harassment.

Guarino admitted under oath that the professor never made a pass at her, never used sexual language, and never tried to kiss her or touch her or act in any other sexual way.

The court dismissed the case, reasoning that there had been no harassment based on sex. Rather, this was an interpersonal problem, and the law doesn’t require employers to protect employees from co-workers who may want friendship or nonsexual companionship from another employee. (Guarino v. St. John Fisher College, No. 08-1531, 2nd Cir., 2009)

Warning: This case doesn’t mean you should ignore the types of behavior described. An unhealthy attachment may be a sign of psychological problems. Remember, employers have a legal obligation under state law and federal workplace safety laws to protect employees from physical harm.