Question: I live in the Los Angeles area, and as many people have heard, there was a pretty big sexual harassment case here with Miramax films and Harvey Weinstein. That case seems obvious that sexual assault is not okay at work (or anywhere), but where is the line drawn when things are subtle?
Answer: Sexual harassment can mean many things to many people. Where one person may find a sexually explicit joke offensive, another may not. That being said, here are some general guidelines that just make sense to follow in the workplace:
1. Email: Circulating sexually explicit material is never okay. Sexual innuendo or sexual references are also not okay, but may be subtle enough that an employee may be unsure what is appropriate and what is not. To protect yourself, never email or forward emails that could be construed as sexual in nature. Better to ere on the side of caution than to find yourself accused of sexual harassment.
2. Comments: Everyone likes to be complimented. Many people, however, have different boundaries on what they feel is appropriate or what feels comfortable for them. While generally, it is okay to comment on someone’s outfit (I like that dress! You look sharp today!), to go further (That dress looks hot, Pinstripes are sexy) is inappropriate in the workplace.
3. Touching: A pat on the back can feel really good. It is, however, better to make that pat on the back figurative rather than literal. While many cultures are okay with hugging, or a touch on the arm when talking, it could be misconstrued in the workplace. Commenting on good performance is always acceptable. Following it with anything other than a handshake or high five could be problematic.
These are only a couple of areas that could create sexual harassment claims in the workplace. If you feel you are the victim of sexual harassment, especially something that seems subtle, contact your manager.
If you do not feel that your manager takes appropriate action, get in touch with your Human Resources department. Keep notes of anything that is said or done that feels uncomfortable to you. Remember, too, that it’s never a bad idea to contact an employment law attorney if you feel like your concerns are not being addressed.