We were overwhelmed with thoughtful comments to our recent post which questioned whether comments in the workplace such as "I love your new haircut" were harassment, mere sexual banter, or simply harmless compliments.   Most readers agreed that tone and context are of paramount importance, but there was still a lot of debate.  Read some of the many comments below.  


Barbara Hewson, a Barrister in the UK, writes:  "There is nothing wrong with compliments in the workplace, and they should be acknowledged gracefully. Women can exert considerable influence by the way they dress, and to pretend that the power differential is all one-way is misguided. Though I’d suggest "I like the new haircut" rather than "love" ("love" sounds a bit gushy)."


Jerolyn Jones, from Houston, wrote:  "I rarely participate in the comments on these sites, but as a female I feel compelled to respond. As the only female on the management team for most of my 30 years in the business, I have always had to deal with comments about my hair, makeup, clothing choices, weight, etc. Most comments are innocent or stupid with no real intent, but that does not change the fact that it singles me out in the group and sometimes makes me uncomfortable. I won’t bore you with specifics.

Secondly, I will also say that in 30 years as an HR professional, I have NEVER had a single complaint of sexual harassment that was not true. Every single case had merit and the complaining employee needed help to resolve a workplace issue. It would be nice if more men would become "sensitive" to the fact the women are co-workers who deserve equal treatment in an environment that also acknowledges diversity and differences."


Claudia Orr, an employment attorney from the Detroit area, said:

"I often use the example of "nice sweater" when I train on sexual harassment. It is one thing to say nice sweater in a casual manner… its another to be staring at the woman’s chest and then say it in a leering manner while salivating.  And, of course, one comment does not a hostile work environment make.


I like to add to employment policies that "because the company has a higher standard for acceptable conduct in the workplace, an employee may be disciplined for violating this policy even when state and federal civil rights laws are not violated." That way, your response is not per se an admission and you can argue (1) civil rights law was not violated, and, even if it was, (2) we took prompt and appropriate remedial action."


Neil Schermitzler responded to Jerolyn:  "If we are going to walk the path of male/female interactions in the workplace, then, based on my male experience, Jerolyn’s points are valid but I have to add, probably based on my "maleness" that females win the sensitivity game. in my 40 years in HR I have not one male complain about a female making a comment such as "nice suit" or "great shoes" or "nice hair cut." Not one guy has asked "what did you mean by that." So now we’re back on the content issue.

Does anyone but me find it a bit humorous that the comments inferred in Jerolyn’s email were likely held in high regard by a female IF such comments were made by some guy she liked or was interested in getting to know—like when we were all in high school. I have had to assess many a case where the "charge" made was factual but the investigation found that the (female) only filed the charge against a male she didn’t like, yet accepted the same comments from other males with no issue. We all know blatent SH, primarily directed toward females by ignorant, stupid, moron males is WRONG and insulting to women, but we need to keep perspective."


Nate Regier said:  "Blatant harassment aside, comments such as these depend a ton on personality differences between people. Words, tones, postures, gestures, and facial expressions all work together to project intention and can be aligned to match a person’s personality and needs, or can come across as fake, sarcastic, or disrespectful.  Add another wrinkle … overlap between personality and gender. Imagine a male who leads with emotions, likes to connect personally and cares about personal appearance. He approaches a female who is very task oriented, sees the world through thoughts, and prefers logical and non-emotional interactions. The male says, "you look nice today", which is what he’d like to hear.  He’s only practicing the Golden Rule. The woman is taken aback by this, and is uncomfortable by the comment. Sexual harassment?  Depends…."


Michelle Sommer, a frequent "commenter" wrote:  "While I agree that it doesn’t fit into the usual standards, tone can be a component. I’ll have to see if I can dig up the case I saw a while back where a male supervisor made the exact same comment to just about everyone on his team – male and female. However the review uncovered that when he made it to the plaintiff he used a totally different tone that was described as sexually suggestive. Because it happened so frequently, there was a decision that it was sexual harassment despite the facts that the words themselves spoken in a normal tone would not have been."


Gordon Janzten, an HR exec from Ohio, wrote: "I agree with the article that a simple compliment, by itself, probably does not rise to the level of harassment, but that the context can change everything. If this comment is made within the context of a strong, professional, and respectful work relationship, it will probably be appreciated by the receiver and nothing more will come of it. If, on the other hand, the compliment comes on the heels of repeated sexual advances and other inappropriate comments, the new compliment will be seen as a continuation of that unwelcome and inappropriate pattern."


Marc Brenman wrote:  "I don’t think that "tone" is part of the standards of proof for sexual harassment, except in the sense of the "reasonable woman" standard. It doesn’t really fit into the usual standards of frequency, egregiousness, severity, sexual nature, and unwelcomeness. "I love your new haircut" isn’t even "sexual." "


Dawn Nijim Hill, an HR Director from New Mexico, commented on some of the above comments:  

 "I think Gordon hit it on the head. Sexual harassment is defined as a hostile work environment. A comment about a new haircut is NOT sexual harassment. However, if that same individual makes REPEATED comments about a woman’s appearance, then there is potential for it to be perceived as harassing behavior. Also, in line with what Jerolyn said … a man who is frequently commenting on women’s appearances is probably not affording them the professional workplace respect that they are due."


Anyone want to comment on these comments?