Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on sex, and sexual harassment is sex discrimination. Essentially, the law protects employees from harassment because of sex—and that can include same-sex harassment.
That doesn’t mean, however, that every unwanted work relationship is sexual harassment.
As a recent 2nd Circuit case shows, an obsessive interest, unrelated to sex, by one employee in another isn’t prohibited.
Recent case: Lucia Guarino began working at St. John Fisher 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 laws to protect employees from physical harm.
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