As we ring in 2018, companies are working overtime to revamp their sexual harassment policies and procedures as part of their New Year's resolutions. As they do so, they still encounter confusion in seeking to define terms. One of the most basic questions facing companies across the nation is: when does social behavior become sexual harassment?
For example, in the #MeToo era, is there any acceptable physical contact in the office beyond a handshake? Does it depend on the power imbalance between the parties? How about a hug, or a kiss, on New Year's Eve? I am willing to bet employers scrapped the mistletoe at the company Christmas party this year. Although removing suggestive props does not solve the problem, particularly in an environment that features a hosted bar.
So in pursuit of smart risk management strategy, employers are working overtime to create (hopefully) easy to follow guidelines designed to ensure that employees understand the boundaries of permissible behavior. Yet according to a new survey, paving those parameters will be harder than they think.
Social Boundaries and Blurred Lines
According to a new poll by Reuters, when it comes to sexual harassment, unlike the famous quotation by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a case about obscenity, we do not “know it when we see it.” Poll results reveal that with respect to daily workplace interaction, employees are divided on what constitutes offensive behavior.
The survey presented 3,000 American adults with eight different scenarios, and then asked them if they personally believed each to be an example of sexual harassment. The results spoke volumes about how different perspectives shape the way different people view the same behavior.
Unwanted kissing or groping without consent was the easy case, viewed by most adults as sexual harassment. Past the obvious scenario, however, the lines became blurred.
For example, 38 percent of adults believed that “unwanted compliments about your appearance” constituted sexual harassment, compared to 47 percent who felt that it did not. 41 percent of adults viewed “dirty jokes” as sexual harassment, while 44 percent did not. How about a hug? 44 percent of adults viewed nonconsensual hugging as sexual harassment, compared to 40 percent who did not.
Notice how the identification of behavior as sexual harassment appears to increase as a perpetrator progresses from words to action. From talking to touching. This provides some measure of guidance of how people perceive sexual harassment.
Yet there were also differences in how behavior is perceived based on gender, race, and age. In the Reuters poll, 19 percent of men believed that intentional touching without consent was not sexual harassment, as compared with only 11 percent of women. Complicating the results somewhat is the fact that the poll did not define the boundaries of “non-consensual” touching.
Regarding race, only 39 percent of whites viewed non-consensual hugging as sexual harassment, compared to 52 percent of people from racial minorities.
And with respect to age, older adults were more likely to view sending “pornographic pictures” to someone without their consent as sexual harassment, while younger people were more permissive.
One powerful statement these statistics do make, however, is that employers, on their part, need to clarify company rules and expectations for appropriate office behavior to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Going Hands Free — Not Just in Your Cars
Some employers and employees fear that we have gone overboard with office rules and regulations. Colleagues are afraid to give compliments or tell jokes, and are vigilant about maintaining personal space. Some might joke that we should have expected employees to show up at the office Christmas party wearing inflatable life preservers to ensure that no one was able to get close enough for an accidental touching.
Yet such over the top precautions miss the point. It is important to recognize what sexual harassment is, as well as what it isn´t. Although when in doubt, it is always wise to err on the side of caution, sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention. Consensual flirting does not fall into this category. Nor does personal conversation between consenting adults. Although individuals should be absolutely certain romantic feelings are reciprocal before doing or saying anything that could be misperceived. Courtship behavior must be mutual.
And although touching is riskier than talking, words matter too. When it comes to compliments, for example, “Great dress” is a drastically different statement than “You look great in that dress.” And of course, setting, expression, and tone of voice matter as well because context clarifies content.
Defining Safe Space in 2018
From a company risk management perspective, creating office policy and procedure manuals that establish the boundaries of acceptable behavior will help avoid problems. Expect to see more clearly defined sexual harassment guidelines in 2018.
My prediction is that this is one New Year's resolution businesses are going to keep.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 2,500 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
© 2021 Newsmax. All rights reserved.