These days, most workers are conscious of the issue of harassment in workplace situations, and they know the more obvious behaviors to avoid. Yet there are some interactions that can still cause disturbance, when people engage in them without thinking of context and the nature of the interaction. The issues of subtle sexual harassment are not easy to bring out in the open.
“Innocent Flirting” Might Be Harassment
The government regulations regarding sexual harassment lay out a clear definition of what constitutes harassment:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
What traps many people is not grasping what can be considered “intimidating, hostile, or offensive.” What one person might consider “innocent flirting” in the office might actually be received as disturbingly unwanted personal attention. One man’s humorous familiarity with a long-time married female co-worker might be received as intimidating and offensive to the much younger, newly engaged colleague who only joined the company six weeks earlier.
In a work-place with a casual atmosphere, it is easy for co-workers to mistake politeness and a desire to avoid turmoil for acceptance of casual physical contact or verbal familiarity. Co-workers need to be aware of context. Just because a male co-worker overhears his female colleague talking to another woman about an outfit she just purchase, that does not mean he can email her privately expressing anticipation of seeing her in that outfit. The expression of interest in a person’sfuture wardrobe choices is an intrusion into “personal space” and can be received as harassment. Just wait until she wears the outfit, and compliment her then.
The discomfort that such intrusions creates is a subtle, sometimes vague, experience for the recipient. They are uncertain as to whether to verbally warn the intruder, or just swallow it, ignore it and move on. The problem is that often the intrusive personality reads silence on the matter as acceptance, and so they may believe that the recipient does not have a problem with the intrusion.
The danger in email communications is that all the non-verbal signals of acceptance, amusement, discomfort are lost. And given our highly interactive world, there is often an expectation on the part of the sender of an email or chat message that the other person will respond in some way. The sender may not consider the possibility that the recipient is so uncomfortable with what was sent that they are not going to say anything. When the sender doesn’ t realize that, that person may send of string of messages asking why there was no reaction, or repeating similar familiarities. Eventually the recipient (who has probably been thinking “If I don’t answer, it means I don’t want it!”) will reach a breaking point and angrily denounce the sender’s behavior.
A lack of response to an approach, whether verbal or by email or message should be taken as a “No, please stop. Thank you.”
Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment does not only mean active hostilities between two people, where there is a pitched battle daily for control of things in the office. It can also mean such things as a man having the Playboy pin-up calendar displayed where all his female co-workers are likely to see it at any time of the day, even without stepping into his office or cubicle. A woman leaving a shopping bag of personal hygiene items in clear view could also be considered “hostile work environment” for the men in the office.
Paying attention to our co-workers and giving everyone a degree of consideration and respect is the best way to avoid falling into subtle behaviors that can accumulate in a harassment situation. Awareness and consideration will help all avoid having to deal with harassment employment lawyers.