With the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations resulting in numerous ousters and resignations, sensitivity is running high. At the same time, a lot of workers are concerned about what actually constitutes illegal workplace activity.
Exactly how is sexual harassment defined? Would a compliment about a co-worker’s appearance constitute harassment? How about a pat on the back or a hug?
“I think people are really confused, and I think especially men,” the head of a dating service told NPR recently. Although most people know not to grab, fondle or forcibly kiss their co-workers, many wonder where the line really is. That has led to a sense that the workplace is fraught with risk.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious” typically do not qualify as sexual harassment. What is problematic is behavior such as:
- Frequent or pervasive sexual or gender-based comments
- Requests or demands for sexual favors in exchange for job-related perks or under threat of retaliation
- Verbal or physical harassment that creates a hostile work environment
The harasser can be a man or a woman, and same-sex harassment is legally the same as opposite-sex harassment. The harasser can be a co-worker, a supervisor, or even a customer — every covered company has a legal duty to provide a safe workplace, and that includes taking steps against anyone who engages in illegal harassment.
Are discussions about sexual harassment itself a positive development?
The news has also led to people bringing up the subject of sexual harassment at work. While a healthy discussion may be a good thing, it’s possible for these conversations to create even more confusion.
When what was meant to be an open, honest discussion goes wrong, it may add to a sense that the work environment is hostile.
“When it’s all the guys in the office, they’re a little bit more free in how they talk about sexual politics and women and things like that,” a marketing worker told NPR. “It makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m the most junior person, (so) I don’t speak up.”
What can employers do to clear up the confusion?
In order to avoid unnecessary fear and promote a healthy workplace, it’s important for your company to send a clear, accurate message.
Make sure your employees are aware of your sexual harassment policy, and remind them to be respectful and professional at all times.
On the verbal side of things: One attorney interviewed by NPR put it this way: “My general rule is: If you wouldn’t say it to a man, don’t say it to a woman.”
On the physical side of things: If you don’t hug the men in your office, or rub their shoulders, don’t do it to the women (or vice versa). Or better yet, remember the first lesson you learned in kindergarten: keep your hands to yourself.