The following narrative is loosely based on an experience by a woman I know, whom I’ll call “Susan”, who is now a high level executive within her company.  Susan is a smart, savvy, hard-working career woman who, several years ago, had been waiting for an opportunity to prove her capabilities.  One day, that opportunity presented itself.  Or so it appeared.

Restaurant “Work” Meeting

Susan’s boss Mark came by her office to talk to her about the marketing project she had been intensively working on for the past several weeks. Mark was someone she didn’t know particularly well. Rather, he was someone Susan had admired from afar.   Mark exuded confidence and competence, managed people with ease, and had an impressive intellect.  Mark was several years Susan’s senior, extremely accomplished, and she respected him.  Because Mark was travelling later that day, he asked Susan to meet with him at a restaurant near the airport to discuss the project.  Although there were more than a dozen members on the project’s team, Susan was the only one with whom he wished to meet.  And that only made sense, because she was the leader of the group, the person who had put in the long hours, and the person who had contributed her own original ideas to the project – ideas that she would have implemented at her own company if she had one.  Susan believed she was finally getting the recognition she deserved.

Susan organized her power point notes and best thoughts, and headed to the restaurant, where Mark was already waiting for her when she arrived.  She was wearing her favorite navy business suit, because she understood that impressions count, and professionalism can be communicated through appearances as well as through good work.   After greeting Mark, Susan exchanged a few pleasantries, and then dove right into the project.  The restaurant was empty, as it was not meal time, but Susan thought nothing of it.   She had a vision for improving the company for quite some time, and thought this was her chance to convey that vision to the person in charge.

He’s Not Interested In Your Work

But as Susan eagerly began to discuss the project with the man sitting directly across from her, she noticed that something was not quite right, and a deeply uncomfortable reality emerged.  Mark was not interested in her project, her ideas, her talents, her experience or her hard work.   He wanted to date her, even though both were married.  He didn’t say anything overtly sexual, nor did he initiate any physical contact.   But he made his intentions clear, suggesting that at their next meeting she wear something more casual, perhaps a shorter skirt that would better flatter her attractive figure.  Mark flirted, asked personal questions, and wanted to know about Susan’s availability on the weekend and after hours. He wanted to have a sexual relationship, and her decision about whether to accept or reject his advances would likely have an impact on her career within the company.    She then recalled the rumors she had heard about him, which she had previously dismissed as malicious office gossip.   But there she was, sharing food and having drinks with him at a restaurant, with no one around to see what was happening.

If she refused his advances, she worried she might be punished.  She could be relegated to a minor role in the company, ignored, demoted, or worse, perhaps even terminated.  But she found his behavior demeaning and insulting, and did not want to get romantically involved.   She did not know what to do.

Rejection of One-Event Sexual Advance by a Supervisor Outside the Workplace Can Meet the Necessary Elements of a Claim for Retaliation Under the Florida Civil Rights Act

Can a one-time sexual advance by a boss or supervisor outside the workplace constitute sexual harassment?  Is the company responsible?  How should you respond?  If you reject the advance and experience adverse consequences, do you then have a claim against the company?  The answer is it depends.

A Florida appellate court recently determined that an employee’s rejection of a one-event sexual advance by a supervisor at a non-work sponsored party can meet the necessary elements of a claim for retaliation under the Florida Civil Rights Act against the employer.  But in order for the sexual harassment preceding the employment decision to be actionable, the conduct must be severe or pervasive.  The conduct at issue in the recent Florida case  — which involved nonconsensual physical sexual contact — was considerably more severe than the conduct described in this blog post.  Even if severe, an off-premises advance by a boss or supervisor by itself still may not be enough support a claim against the employer, unless the victim’s rejection of the advance is followed by adverse employment actions taken by the employer.   If, for example, you are fired, demoted, transferred, or denied advancement opportunities, and the evidence shows these adverse actions were caused by your rejection of the unwanted advance, you may be able to recover compensation for your damages, which could include lost wages, compensation for emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees and costs.