Would it be sexual harassment
if one of my coworkers …?
After delivering more than 500 sexual harassment prevention sessions over the past 20 years, I’ve heard many versions of this question from workshop participants.
I’m always curious about the reason for the question. Sometimes I think people are describing behavior they were subjected to and want to know if they were sexually harassed.
What Can I Get Away With?
At other times I suspect people asking the question want to know the limits of what they can do without getting in trouble. When I’ve probed a bit, it’s not uncommon to learn they think the world is too politically correct. They don’t plan to change their views (that’s their right), but they also don’t want to lose their job or worse. Perhaps they should just ask, “How disrespectful can I be and still keep my job?”
As a trainer, I want to change hearts and minds, but on some days I’ll happily take a shift in behavior to something that’s less problematic. A move towards respect is always a win, even if it is only a small one.
Regardless of the question’s intent, I’m sure more times than not my answer leaves people unsatisfied. Sometimes the question has an obvious answer. For example, “Is it sexual harassment if my boss tells me that I’ll get a promotion only if I go on a date with him/her?” That one’s an easy yes.
Most of the time the answer isn’t clear, especially for questions like, “Is it sexual harassment if my coworker gets a new shirt that I think looks attractive on him/her, and I compliment the person about it?” My response will usually include some version of it depends on the facts of the case. Inquiring minds would want to know:
- What exactly did you say with your compliment?
- What was your body language and tone when you said it?
- How often do you compliment this person’s appearance?
- What sort of relationship do you have with this person?
I’m happy to talk through questions that have some gray, but am not going to give the definite answer they want.
Instead they are going to learn about the words pervasive, severe, and reasonable. These standards are what make the topic challenging to teach.
That’s why I’ve developed a different approach. My suggestion to workshop participants is to stop trying to be lawyers. I’m not one, and they aren’t either. The courts exist to sort through the facts and make those sorts of judgments. Let them do that work.
Stay Back from the Edge
Instead of trying to figure out where the legal line is, stay a good distance from it, far enough back that an unexpected interpretation of the law couldn’t possibly result in your behavior being characterized as illegal harassment.
My recommendation is the same one I follow when I’m on a mountain ledge with a scenic view to behold. I suppose I could get right to the edge. It might give me an adrenaline rush and a good photo for Facebook, but I never do it because I recognize that the potential extra thrill just isn’t worth the increased risk.
Standing back 10 feet from the edge still gives me a great view, and at that distance I don’t have to worry about a rogue gust of wind or a sudden case of vertigo plunging me to my death.
The Edge Is Invisible
Let’s suppose we are together on that ledge, and you want me to take your photo precariously close to the edge. You’re not worried about the wind.
Before you approach the edge I suggest we make the photo better. I blindfold you and say, “You’ve had a good look at where that edge is. Walk out there blindfolded and stop when you know you are close enough for a cool photo.”
That’s similar to what happens when you get close to the line of illegal sexual harassment. You’re never quite certain where the edge is. It’s going to depend on lots of factors, and many of them are outside your control. Do you still want that photo?
Don’t Even Get Close (That’s the Simple Rule)
Even if you are confident you can see the edge, close can still create problems for you and your coworkers. You know what comes just before illegal? Creepy, rude, objectionable, or disrespectful are few answers reasonable people might offer. Getting close is still bad.
Stay far enough from the edge that your behavior would be judged by those same reasonable people as, at worst, annoying or lacking courtesy and as, at best, supportive, respectful, or even kind.
Be Respectful and Kind
I like to read newspaper comments. On stories about sexual harassment it never takes long before I find a comment in which someone wonders if it is even possible for men and women to work together without a misunderstanding leading to a complaint.
While I imagine anything’s possible, my suggestion boils down to be respectful and kind. If you do that I’m comfortable saying that you should have no worries about being accused of sexual harassment.
It’s super simple. Stop trying to interact with coworkers near the legal edge. Instead, be a decent human being to everyone around you. Do that, and you’ll not only stay out of trouble, but you will also do your part to create a better workplace for yourself and your coworkers.