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Compliment, joke, flirt or sexual harassment: where is the limit?

Sexual harassment comes regularly in the news yet, 10 to 15% of people meet their spouse at work. Both men and women are often uncertain as to where sexual harassment starts. Each country has its own law defining it.

A definition of sexual harassment

Here is the United Nation’s definition : “Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment “ (United Nations, Secretariat, Prohibition of discrimination, harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority, 11 February 2008).

It is a very broad definition but what I am most asked about relates to jokes, compliments, and flirts.

Man harassing a colleague at work

Jokes, compliments and flirt: how to consider them regarding sexual harassment?

The most common thing sexually harassed people tell me is that they are accused of lack of humour. Making fun of someone directly (ex : make jokes on a person’s outfit, way to move,..) or indirectly (ex : jokes on women, on blondes), is a characteristic of sexual harassment as it belittles someone and harms its dignity.

A compliment is a polite expression of praise or admiration. At work, it is great to make work-related compliments. Can compliments be harmful ? The answer is yes. Here is an example, if you make regular comments on a person’s looks : it focuses the attention on its appearance rather than its performance/potential. Being perceived as ‘ a pretty thing’ can poorly affect the person’s professional credibility.

As for flirt, it usually becomes sexual harassment when a person’s infatuation is not shared, he/she denies the negative reply and pursues relentlessly with pseudo-romantic messages (whether verbal, written or behavioural). NB : it also often occurs after a relationship has been ended. The harassed co-worker is in constant alert, tries to become invisible so much so that it affects badly his or her performance.

How to recognize sexual harassment?

Here are the key elements to recognize sexual harassment according to me :

  • Sexual harassment is not about sex, it is about power. The goal of the harasser is not to generate affection: it is to overpower, ‘have his/her way’.
  • It intends to annoy, belittle, embarrass so that the person harassed loses a lot of his/her power to use full potential to do a good job.
  • It harms the dignity of the person harassed.

It is difficult to prove a person’s intention but if someone at work makes endless jokes to mock or belittle people based on their gender generically, and those working with him/her particularly or shares pornographic jokes, this is sexual harassment as targeted co-workers will always be very cautious of the way they behave, perform and dress so that they do not become a specific target of harassment.

One thing to know : sexual harassment has nothing to do with the looks : it affects people of both sex, at all ages, whether they meet or not the common ‘beauty criteria’.

Two young women laughing while talking in the office behind their male colleague

Here are my tips if you wonder whether there is or not sexual harassment :

  • If you wonder whether you could be accused of sexual harassment, ask yourself how you would feel if someone was behaving towards you the way you do. If I take some of the examples above : how would you feel if you received the compliments you make, with the same frequency ? how would you feel if your co-workers were swapping sexual jokes on your gender and sharing pornographic material ? If it does not feel right, it is a sign that you are at risk.
  • If you wonder whether you are the target of sexual harassment : write down what has happened, and check the criteria of the definition one by one. My advice to you is to start to make a journal by sending yourself emails establishing the facts, every time they occur mentioning the potential witnesses. The email will timestamp the occurrence of the harassment if you want to file a complaint, whether at corporate level or in court.

I hope this helps you to understand what is at stake.

Written for Livemore, the free personal development app

1 thought on “Compliment, joke, flirt or sexual harassment: where is the limit?”

  1. Pingback: From hyper control to burn out: the insidious consequences of sexual abuse on professional life - Isabelle Henkens and co.

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