News about allegations of sexual harassment has become quite common. This has caused many businesses to focus on policies and training for sexual harassment and other areas such as anti-bullying and anti-discrimination at work.

Policies help define what is appropriate behaviour and what to do if inappropriate behaviour takes place. They focus on how to report and resolve issues, should they happen to you, or another work colleague.

Training is about educating people on what sexual harassment is and to develop a clear understanding of how to identify, report and resolve it. When it comes to dignity at work, opinions often vary. For example, is it ok to compliment a work colleague on what he or she is wearing? Is a congratulatory hug, acceptable? Are comments about age, gender, race, religion or sexual preferences allowed? When does a compliment become sexual harassment?

What is a compliment?

A compliment is defined as “a formal act or expression of civility, respect, or regard.”  In the workplace, expressions of this type are best to reflect a person’s intelligence, work-related abilities, and other professional aspects of their character.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to the circumstances, would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

A compliment such as “you look good today” delivered with the right intent, rarely offends and will often be interpreted as a welcome comment. However, we should be mindful that any compliment that talks to a person’s physical attributes can be risky and we should always err on the side of caution. More obvious are comments like, “You look sexy in a pin-striped suit” that will in most cases make a reasonable person feel uncomfortable and potentially offend, humiliate or intimidate them, or others involved.

In some cases, we could debate what is a compliment and what is sexual harassment. Opinions can vary and that is why we have to deal with the facts. Frequent comments regarding a person’s looks, clothing choice or sexual preferences can have a negative impact on the work environment. The old adage of ‘think before you speak’ is more relevant today than ever before.

As a rule of thumb, when it comes to compliments at work, they are best aimed at the professional performance and attributes of a work colleague. Much safer and generally much more appropriate. This is what dignity at work is all about. However, if we are too conservative, it can work the other way and make our workplace become stale and uninviting. For example, if a parent comes back from paternity leave, looking excited and fresh, surely we have the right to make comment on how vibrant they look. Yes, it is a compliment that is based on their appearance, but clearly that is in the category of a ‘compliment’ and delivered in the right way and for the right reasons is a respectful way to engage with a work colleague.

What matters is the motivation

At times it gets difficult to call sexual harassment from compliments. The main difference between the two is motivation. When one compliment’s someone, their primary motivation is to make a person feel good, valued and appreciated. Compliments are typically given when trying to establish a relationship and build trust.

Harassment, on the other hand, has a primary motivation of power, intimidation and violation of a person’s boundaries. It can make a person feel uncomfortable or as the definition of sexual harassment says, it can make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Sexual harassment is not always 100% clear. Despite how the media can often portray the situation, it is not just male to female. In fact, many men experience sexual harassment at work as well. Having said that, women are the most common victims of sexual harassment. When it comes to sexual harassment, women are most often on the receiving end of unreasonable comments that are of a sexual nature, often aimed at their physical body or berating them in an inappropriate way.

Here are some examples:

Scenario 1: A female employee to another female employee, who is known to be a close work colleague and friend.

Compliment: I love your outfit, makes you look pretty, where did you get it from?

Sexual harassment:  Looking irresistible today honey, you must have some important meetings with the boss hey?

Scenario 2: A female manager to a new male employee about an upcoming performance appraisal.

Compliment: You’ve done really well this past few months, there has been a great improvement since you joined. I’m looking forward to discussing this with you in our upcoming performance appraisal next week.

Sexual Harassment:  How about we go for a drink after work at the bar down the road to discuss your performance over the past couple of months. You’ve done well and I think we should celebrate if you know what I mean?

Scenario 3: A male employee to a fellow male employee as he enters an open plan office full of work colleagues.

Compliment: “Been hitting the gym lately? You look super fit mate!”

Sexual Harassment: Patting the buttocks and saying “Nice ass big guy, it pays to keep fit hey?”

Scenario 4: A manager to a fellow staff member who has just won a major project.

Compliment: “You have become the face of our company. We’re all really proud of the way you represent us. The way you communicate and negotiate to win major projects is a wonderful asset you bring to the group.”

Sexual Harassment: “Ever since we put your face on the front of our proposal documentation we seem to win many more projects. People want to deal with beautiful people hey?”

One of the most important things to consider when considering these scenarios is that words are just a small part of communication. Body language and tone also contribute greatly to what is received by others. When giving or receiving feedback we should always give consideration to how we communicate.

Whilst we have provided some slightly exaggerated examples of sexual harassment to demonstrate the differences between compliment and sexual harassment, sometimes it is not so clear. That is why having clear policies in place and reliable online sexual harassment training such as the course provided by Sentrient will help people better identify, report and resolve such issues if they arise. Having clear policies and reliable training in place will also make it clear to everyone that sexual harassment is a serious issue and will not be tolerated.

There have been recent examples in high profile organisations, where they have dealt with employees who have engaged in sexual harassment, treating it as misconduct and dismissing them for such actions. These examples send a clear message that inappropriate behaviour in the workplace is not on. It also serves as a reminder to all of us that if you have any doubt that what you might say or do could be seen as inappropriate, or offend, humiliate or intimidate another person or group, that it probably is, and you shouldn’t say or do it.

Not sure if your organisation has policies regarding sexual harassment? Not sure when you last delivered training on sexual harassment in the workplace? Contact Sentrient today and find out how we can help you review your anti-bullying, harassment and discrimination policies and ensure effective training is in place.

Get a free demo of our sexual harassment online training course by clicking here or you can contact us on 1300 040 589 or on info@sentrient.com.au to learn more.