Readers were quick to respond to our post “‘Oh Wow, You Look So Pretty I Can’t Even Concentrate’ – Sexual Banter Or Sexual Harassment?” This is a long post because we did not want to leave out a lot of good, incisive comments.
Laurel Kiorpes Parker, an EEO consultant at Cornell University:
“Banter like this can be a starting point for a hostile work environment claim later on. The escalation can be subtle, but happens. Then I get the defensive response, “But nobody complained *before*…”
Ian Bush, a management consulant in the Ottawa, Canada area:
“Maybe I’m too close to these issues as an HR professional, but this type of talk in today’s workplace is an anachronism. It is a risk to the employer of human rights claims which can be avoided by being professional at work. Save the banter for leisure settings where the employer is not at risk. Unless there is explicit consent, then such banter is not acceptable, unless one is in the sex trade where consent is implicit. We can do without the “But nobody complained *before*…” school yard defence.”
Aileen Thompson, an attorney and HR professional in the Philadelphia area:
“I would ask: what’s the business related purpose of such a compliment?’ Could the compliment have been worded more effectively so as not to possibly offend? [I] agree the comments themselves as written probably don’t rise to a level of sexual harassment but how are the comments helping the business at all?”
Ed Dougherty, an HR professional in the NYC area:
“That is completely in the ear/perspective of the beholder. If he/she feels harassed, it’s harassment. Best to reserve such comments for a more appropriate time and place (never at work!).”
William McGovern, union president, Pottsville, PA:
“Based on my experience of representing my membership in such matters I would say it is sexual banter until such time as the individual the banter is directed to puts the person doing the bantering on notice that it is unwelcome and asks that person to stop bantering. If the banterer has been given such notice by one individual or a group that his/ her actions are not welcome and the banter continues, then I believe it changes from Sexual Banter to Sexual Harassment. I believe an individual must be informed that his/her actions are unwelcome and be allowed the opportunity to correct the unwelcome behavior before it is classified as harassment.”
Susan Penn, location unknown:
“Pervasiveness is another key concept tied to a viable harassment claim. However, all it need take for HR to get involved is the knowledge of discomfort of the part of the recipient, how what is being said or done is affecting the ability to feel safe in the workplace and able to do his/her job. In other words, even a compliment may need to be investigated, if an employee brings it forward as something that is disturbing. In my opinion, there is a big fat line between a ‘compliment’ and ‘you look sexy today.'”
Rochelle Massarella, an HR consultant from the Philadelphia area:
“The behavior you describe is inappropriate in the workplace and borders on sexual harassment. A conversation is warranted with this individual about the inappropriateness of his remarks which could and should lead to disciplinary action if continued. The workforce is very diverse and employees most maintain professional behavior at all times. Off the wall comments and jokes have no place in the workplace. You never know who you are going to offend. ”
Jeff Hatch, an HR consultant in Spring Hill, Florida:
“Harmless Banter, is there such a thing? I say no, because sooner or later that banter is going to offend someone.”
Ivette Dupuis, an HR professional in the Orlando, Florida area:
“Employers legitimately wanting to stop problems before they arise have one further hurdle: their clients’ HR departments. Both in handling and in mediating cases, I am constantly surprised by the extent to which HR departments sometimes abandon their role as the first line of protection of the employer by stopping problems, and have taken up instead the role of enablers and defenders of the managers accused of harassment, even where a modest investigation would turn up a pattern of fairly extreme behavior that should have been stopped.
Some of them invent all sorts of rules to avoid looking at unpleasant things: requiring that all complaints be in writing, looking at each complaint in isolation, requiring independent corroboration that can never be provided since the harassment did not take place in front of independent witnesses, dismissing the complaint because earlier women just laughed it off, and the like.”
Daniel Lark, an IT professional in Albany, NY:
“To this day I carefully choose my words when giving a complement based on her appearance or risk getting a ‘you are insulting my intelligence’ type response.”
I often even hesitate to acknowledge new faces in the hall at work, less they decide that they were ‘offended’ by my head nod. It’s the new work environment. It seems that everyone is waiting to be offended by something.
Deborah Scroggin, an HR professionla in Seminole, Florida:
“I believe you should be able to compliment someone in the workplace without it being misconstrued as sexual harassment. As long as the person paying the compliment keeps the compliment “clean” and doesn’t say it within a sexual connotation, there should be no reason for issues to arise. Have we fallen so far as a society that we all should worry about saying something nice to a co-worker? That’s ridiculous!”
Rose-Marie Macintyre, a business consultant in Bathgate, West Lothian, UK:
“You can compliment a work colleague on the way they look without it being sexual banter or harassment – you do it in a polite but non threatening way. We all like being complimented, either on the way we look or the work we deliver; sexual banter and sexual harassment have no place at work. Positive compliments are accepted in the manner they are given — no need for sleaze.”
Thomas Knott, a diversity specialist in the Cincinnati area:
“Rose-Marie, I would agree. Sexual banter is something that you can have with friends, but not co-workers; and even then it has to be contained. Compliments to a co-worker on appearance when presented properly can have a similar affect of complimenting one’s work or handling of a situation. When we get dressed, we dress in a way that makes us comfortable, feel good, or to put up a wall in some cases; when someone takes time to notice and pay a compliment it reinforces our own feeling of ourselves, our confidence and the emotions that we tie to the outfit (when done in a respectful way).
The key is being respectful in how and when you give the compliment.”