Compliment Or Come-On? Confusion Over How To Define Sexual Harassment

Dec 18, 2017
Originally published on December 21, 2017 10:15 am

The sexual harassment scandals over the past couple of months are causing some workers to rethink some of their office behaviors. Is it still OK to compliment a colleague on the way he or she looks? What about a congratulatory hug? Acceptable, or too risky in this new environment?

Navigating those distinctions isn't always clear.

At a recent office meeting, Bela Gandhi received a compliment from a man who told her, "you look great." Moments later, the man paused, reconsidered his comment, then wondered aloud whether Gandhi found it inappropriately sexual.

"He just said, 'I don't really know — sometimes I wonder, what's the line on that?' " says Gandhi, president of Smart Dating Academy in Chicago, which coaches people on romance. She told him that compliments — so long as they are delivered with the right tone — are welcome. She reassured him that he is not alone in grappling with these questions.

"I think people are really confused, and I think especially men," she says, most of whom know to steer far clear of forcible kissing or grabbing. However, some recent cases involve men being investigated for behavior that is less egregious but that nevertheless made colleagues feel uncomfortable — and Gandhi says that is adding to the sense among men that the office is fraught with risk these days.

Several organizations, including NPR, have fired or suspended male executives who've been accused of harassment.

Gandhi says her guidance hasn't changed because of recent news: Be respectful and gauge whether interest is reciprocal. Asking someone on a date is OK, but do not persist, and stay within the bounds of office policy.

These types of discussions, she says, are long overdue.

"I'm very optimistic that men and women in positions of power will understand the power that they wield and be far more careful with what they think, say and do," Gandhi says.

Brenda Russell, a psychology professor at Penn State in Berks County, Pa., says women are also often confused about what, precisely, divides acceptable from inappropriate behavior.

"They understand sexual harassment is not allowed, and that it's wrong," she says, "but no one has taught them what that is." Often, until they find themselves in questionable situations, they don't realize how much the devil is in the details. "What does that mean? The end of all workplace relationships? No personal comments? That's the problem: Nobody quite knows that line," Russell says.

On a recent weekend, Thomas Santangelo, 28, was discussing sexual harassment in a New York City café with his friend. Santangelo works as an actor and in the food-service industry, both places he says harassment is so commonplace that it's universal. These days, he says, things feel a little different.

"People are much more guarded," he says. "I think that if you don't know someone, they'll be much more guarded about how they'll interact with you, simply because there is more fear of retribution."

Santangelo's friend, Chris Demeo, works in a marketing firm and says there are big exceptions to that.

"When it's all the guys in the office, they're a little bit more free in how they talk about sexual politics and women and things like that," he says. "It makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes, but I'm the most junior person, (so) I don't speak up."

James Vagnini, a New York employment attorney, says he is getting more calls about sexual harassment these days. But some calls also have to do with soured office romances and claims of retaliation. Vagnini tells managers they should know about relationships at work involving people they supervise.

"They should know when that relationship begins; they should know when that relationship ends," Vagnini says.

He also worries about a backlash because victims of harassment who speak out are often mislabeled as troublemakers. "I see it every day. The response to this is to turn around and just hire a bunch of men and that way you don't have to worry about those risks, and that's just as illegal," he says.

Vagnini says dealing with workplace gender relations need not be complicated:

"My general rule is: If you wouldn't say it to a man, don't say it to a woman. Your best bet is to leave it alone and just say, 'Good morning.' "

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A series of very public sexual harassment scandals is causing some workers to rethink things they say and do in the office. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, some workers struggle to navigate the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: At a recent meeting, Bela Gandhi received a compliment.

BELA GANDHI: He says, oh, you look great. And I said thank you.

NOGUCHI: Moments later, the man paused, reconsidered his comment then wondered aloud whether Gandhi found it inappropriately sexual.

GANDHI: He just said, I don't really know. You know, sometimes I wonder like what's the line on that.

NOGUCHI: Gandhi is president of Smart Dating Academy in Chicago, which coaches people on romance. She told him compliments delivered with the right tone are welcome and that he is not alone in grappling with these questions.

GANDHI: I think people are really confused, you know, and I think especially men.

NOGUCHI: Most people know to steer clear of forcible kissing or grabbing. But some recent cases involve men being investigated for behavior that's less egregious but nevertheless made colleagues feel uncomfortable. So Gandhi says some men feel the workplace is fraught with risk. Gandhi says her guidance hasn't changed because of recent news. She says be respectful and gauge whether interest is reciprocal. Asking someone on a date is OK. But do not persist and stay within the bounds of office policy. These types of discussions, she says, are long overdue.

GANDHI: I'm very optimistic that men and women in positions of power will understand the power that they wield and be far more careful with what they think, say and do.

NOGUCHI: Brenda Russell is a psychology professor at Penn State in Berks County. She says women are also confused about what precisely divides acceptable from inappropriate behavior.

BRENDA RUSSELL: They understand sexual harassment is not allowed, but no one's taught them what that is. What does that mean - the end of all workplace relationships, no personal comments? That's the problem. Nobody quite knows that line.

NOGUCHI: On a recent weekend in a New York City cafe, I found Thomas Santangelo, who is 28 and works as an actor and also as a waiter. He was discussing sexual harassment with his friends.

THOMAS SANTANGELO: Oh, yeah, people are much more guarded. I think that if you don't know someone, they'll be much more guarded about like how they'll interact with you simply because there is more of a fear of retribution.

NOGUCHI: His friend, Chris Demeo who works at a marketing firm, says he thinks there are big exceptions to that.

CHRIS DEMEO: When it's all the guys in the office, they're a little bit more free in how they talk about sexual politics and women and things like that. And it makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes. But I'm the most junior person, and I don't speak up.

NOGUCHI: James Vagnini, a New York employment attorney, says he gets more calls about sexual harassment these days. But some calls also have to do with soured office romances and claims of retaliation. Vagnini tells managers they should know about relationships at work involving people they supervise.

JAMES VAGNINI: They should know when that relationship begins. They should know when that relationship ends.

NOGUCHI: Vagnini says he worries about a backlash because victims of harassment who speak out are often mislabeled as troublemakers.

VAGNINI: I see it every day. The response of this is to turn around and just hire a bunch of men, and that way you don't have to worry about those risks. And that's just as illegal. You have to give the best person the job.

NOGUCHI: Vagnini says dealing with workplace gender relations need not be complicated.

VAGNINI: My general rule is if you wouldn't say it to a man, don't say it to a woman.

NOGUCHI: Or he notes if that doesn't work, there's always the option of just saying good morning.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE'S "CHILLAXING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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