Appropriate Corporate Behavior: Don’t Get Busted for Sexual Harassment
At one time, “chatting up” an attractive colleague or client at the water cooler was considered just part of the normal workday. That’s no longer the case, and such behavior is no longer considered appropriate in the business environment. It’s easy to get confused, however, about exactly what can be seen as sexual harassment and what is just harmless teasing or chatter. This post gives you everything you need to know to avoid overstepping the line and getting busted for being inappropriate—even if it’s unintentional!
What Constitutes Sexual Harassment
So what exactly is sexual harassment, and how can you recognize inappropriate behavior, preferably before you do it? Basically, it’s any conduct that has a sexual aspect or undertone that makes the person on the receiving end feel uncomfortable.
Legally speaking, it’s an “unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.” What’s more, it doesn’t necessarily have to include unwanted touching or sexual assault.
Harassment can even take the form of sexually explicit jokes, pictures containing nudity or even something like criticizing a woman’s clothing as not being sufficiently feminine.
The Tender Trap
Here’s where it’s so easy to make a mistake. You find a woman attractive and try to make friendly conversation with her. In doing so, you compare notes about your respective weekends and you show her a photo of yourself at the beach, with minimal clothing. If she feels that your purpose in doing so is to display any parts of your body to her, she can determine that you are committing sexual harassment.
Chances are good that a case like that won’t stand up in court, of course, particularly if your intentions are in fact innocent, but the journey from the water cooler to acquittal could be an unpleasant and rocky road that leaves you with a damaged reputation and a much lighter wallet.
Avoid Being Busted
The best way to prevent the drama that comes with being accused of sexual harassment is to avoid doing anything that could be construed as such. Here are some tips to help you display suitable corporate behavior at all times.
Remember that sexual harassment isn’t gender-specific, so don’t assume that if you’re a man talking to another man you’re safe. Harassment can be committed by a man against a woman and vice-versa, by a man against a man or by a woman against another woman. Even if the other person is a client, supplier or visitor instead of an employee, sexual harassment charges can apply.
- Avoid any discussion of personal, sexual or even relationship issues with your colleagues, particularly if the discussion is uninvited by the other person. Even if someone is friendly and asks you about your personal life, be careful of how you respond and don’t provide explicit details.
- Keep your jokes clean and avoid using foul language, which can also be considered harassment if you use overtly sexual terminology.
- Be especially careful with people who are in a subordinate position to yourself. Even an attempt to be “friendly” could potentially be misconstrued if the person feels his or her situation depends on their response to you.
- Never, ever suggest that someone you work with or supervise should have any sort of “date” with you, unless they have clearly invited your attention. Even then it’s risky, because false allegations do happen and you might fall into a trap that’s laid for you.
Steps to Take If You’re Accused
If allegations of sexual harassment are made against you, it’s necessary for the complainant to first lodge a report with the employer. Unlike the majority of crimes in which the accused is innocent until proven guilty, if a victim has any witness to or evidence of the activity that was believed to be sexual harassment you will have to prove that it was consensual. In other words, you may have to show that the person either welcomed the advances or at least did not object to them specifically.
If your employer supports the filing of sexual harassment charges against you, contact a criminal defense attorney immediately for advice. The first consultation is typically free of charge, while the attorney determines whether he (or she) can help you to prove your innocence. If you committed the offense, you should tell the attorney the full truth so he can come up with the best possible defense to reduce the damage to your career and reputation.