Did you ever notice how, when a man and woman work together, someone inevitably (and jokingly) calls out “sexual harassment” if the man compliments his female assistant’s new haircut, or if the woman supervisor tells her male employee that the new sweater he is wearing “really brings out the blue in his eyes”? Then, every other employee in earshot begins to laugh.
Why does this pattern repeat itself? Clearly, neither of these examples constitutes sexual harassment, nor does anyone involved in these conversations actually think so. Yet, scenarios like these continue to play out in workplaces every day. I think it’s because today we are more aware that sexual harassment is a real issue that can happen in the workplace, but at the same time, we are more uncertain than ever of what the rules and boundaries of conduct are.
Because women have continually gained a presence in the workplace since the 1940s, most people recognize sexual harassment in its most egregious form — a male supervisor pressures a female subordinate to have an intimate relationship with him, and then fires her when she refuses his advances. But the complexity and fast pace of our ever-evolving world make people wonder about other circumstances. Now that women are commonly in supervisory roles, is it possible for a female supervisor to sexually harass a male subordinate? Is it considered sexual harassment if two salesmen constantly make crude comments and jokes about women and a female co-worker winds up hearing their comments all day because of the placement of her work station? The answer to all of these questions is yes.
Depending on the circumstances, any of these scenarios, and many others, could constitute sexual harassment. And therein lies the dilemma for most of us: there are very few bright line rules to follow to guarantee that a person you work with will not be offended by something you say that could wind up as hurt feelings, accusations of sexual harassment, and potentially even worse. In any personal interaction, there’s always uncertainty about what a person actually means with the words he or she says, and it’s equally uncertain how the listener or receiver will interpret those words. What one person finds hilarious, another finds cruel. What someone finds to be intrusive, another sees as an attempt to reach out and be supportive. So what’s the solution?
It’s possible that everyone could decide to talk only about work matters when they are at work, but that would be an unfortunate overreaction. For all of the hours we spend at work, we want to get to know the people we work with and make connections with them, and we should. But in talking about our families, current events, things we enjoy, and our opinions on everything from the war in Afghanistan to Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton’s antics, it’s not always easy to know what someone else may consider to be offensive or intimidating enough that he or she would feel sexually harassed.
A good general rule is to watch closely for the reactions of others when you tell a joke, offer your analysis of the female sideline reporter at the Ravens game, or complain about how “useless” your husband is. If you notice a change in body language, an abrupt departure from the area where the conversation is happening, or a smile that becomes a cold, blank stare, you’ve hit a raw nerve and you should back off of the topic (right then and there, and in the future). Because whether your comments would meet the legal definition of sexual harassment or not, we would all benefit from living in a world in which we treated each other more sensitively.
By Tracey Cohen Paliath, Esq., Director, Economic Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
JCS offers a full range of career services. To learn more about these and other ways JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, visit http://www.jcsbaltimore.org, or call 410-466-9200. Jewish Community Services is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.