We just read an article which began “Unwelcome groping, or a promise of a better job in return for a kiss, clearly amount to sexual harassment.   But what about comments like ‘Oh wow, you look so pretty, I can’t even concentrate,” or ‘You look sexy today?’”

Is this sexual harassment?  Harmless banter?  The answer is important to HR people, employers and employees.

This article is from South Africa’s Times Live and echoes a few posts which we did about “sexual banter” some time ago.  We began with a quote from Howard Levitt of the Financial Post, who said that “The line between sexual banter and harassment can sometimes be indistinct, even blurred. But crossing it is costly.”

workplace flirting : Flirting in the office as a businessman leans over a sexy seductive female colleague with a leering smile

We then asked “How about when the comment does not rise to even mere banter but is only a casual remark or even simply a workplace compliment?   Are these comments safe or taboo?”

We quoted Leanne Italie, writing for the Associated Press and published in Rocky Mount Telegram, who also asked “Are workplace compliments focused on looks or other personal details like dress ever OK?   Is the alternative a more sterile professional life?   When do such remarks rise to actionable harassment, or become worthy of a friendly rebuff or a trip to human resources?”   She cited to experts who suggest that “tone, context and a pattern of behavior are everything when it comes to unwanted remarks.”

However, as we noted before, the specter of male power differential still is ever present: one labor lawyer said that “Whenever you’re in some kind of a male-dominated world, there are always many sides to a compliment. They’re about power and so using a compliment is a way to change the power dynamic between two individuals, and there’s some tension there.   That happens very frequently.”

So can a compliment be considered harassment?   This same lawyer said that “When you’re thinking about the legal landscape, compliments alone don’t typically constitute unlawful sexual harassment.”   But it’s all about context — and whether a compliment is simply a starting point for banter, or something else.

We received many reader comments in response to these posts which speak from different perspectives.  For example, one reader wrote:  “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.”

In this latest article, the Times Live noted:   “The line between a compliment and sexual harassment is a fine one and overstepping it might affect a company’s bottom line, said Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, at Wits University.  She said sexual harassment went beyond inappropriate sexual advances and included what she called ‘othering.’    This, she said, included ‘intimidation that highlights gender, culture, religion or race.’   She said it also encompassed remarks that might seem to be compliments but were made based on gender, for example.”

This issue, and all of its many facets, is of great significance if progress is to be made in understanding and curbing workplace harassment.