Shannon Fisher on workplace sexual harassment: When in doubt, don’t

With the recent societal focus on workplace sexual harassment in America, many people are asking what the line is between friendly workplace banter and behavior that could be perceived as anywhere from overly flirtatious to downright predatory. Put simply: When in doubt, don’t.

Illustration: Ashley Siebels

With the recent societal focus on workplace sexual harassment in America, many people are asking what the line is between friendly workplace banter and behavior that could be perceived as anywhere from overly flirtatious to downright predatory. Men and women alike seem unsure what is acceptable in interaction with their coworkers, especially when happy marriages often stem from workplace romances.

Following are some simple guidelines.

Unacceptable Behavior:

Touching a coworker/client/customer other than during a handshake or high five.

This includes:

  • Putting your arm around a person’s shoulder.
  • Putting your arm around someone’s waist.
  • Putting your hand on a person’s back while walking.
  • Standing close to someone and brushing against him/her.
  • Hugging a person (unless you have a close friendship outside of the office – and if you have to wonder whether you’re close enough for a hug, you aren’t).
  • Touching and holding someone’s hand across a table.
  • Putting your head against another person’s head or shoulder across a table or sitting next to him/her.
  • Straightening a person’s clothing or hair. (Helping someone with their outer coat is polite and can be done without touching them.)
  • Grabbing that person anywhere on his/her body.
  • Making sexual or suggestive gestures toward or about a person.
  • Making a pass at someone or trying to kiss him/her.

Giving gifts of a sexual nature, even as gag gifts.

Making sexual comments or verbal innuendo. (This includes talking to a person and about that person to others in the workplace.)

Asking for sexual favors. (Asking for favors in exchange for professional advancement is especially egregious).

Sending someone material of a sexual nature via email or text.

Leering up and down a person’s body in a sexual manner (or at all).

Asking someone to spend time with you outside of the workplace if (s)he has previously turned down a social invitation.

Perfectly Acceptable Behavior:

Compliment a person on his/her work and ideas.

Compliment a person on his/her wardrobe. There is a difference between a genuine compliment and a sexual compliment. The delineation is very clear.

  • “You look very nice today.” is always acceptable.
  • “That color looks good on you!” is always acceptable.
  • “That dress really shows off your curves.” is under no circumstances is acceptable.
  • “Wow, loo-king gooood!” is under no circumstances acceptable.
  • And “How YOU doin’?” is acceptable if said in a buddy-buddy tone — but it is never acceptable in a Joey-from-Friends tone. You know the difference. Everybody knows the difference.

Keep jokes with coworkers/clients/customers PG-13 rated, whether in public or in private.

Only factor someone’s gender or sexual orientation into workplace discussions when specifically seeking or assessing the opinions of different demographics for workplace purposes (focus groups, advertising targets, etc.).

Develop genuine platonic friendships over time with people with whom you form a bond. Socialize outside of the office if both people wish to do so.

There is only one circumstance under which it is in any way appropriate to have romantic interaction with a coworker:

If you are single and available, looking for a serious relationship, have real feelings for a coworker who is also single and available, and you are 95% sure the object of your affection is also romantically interested in you, you might want to say something away from the office to gauge his/her level of interest. Even this borders on inappropriate behavior, but sometimes people do meet the love of their life at work or at a work function — and sometimes it is worth taking a risk.

What you say and how you say it are extremely important because sometimes what you THINK has been an expression of romantic interest on a person’s part might have been wishful thinking and analysis on your part.

When you are in a public place but having a private conversation (restaurant, cafeteria, walking down the street — never while traveling or alone in a room with the person), say something friendly along the lines of, “You know, you’re really great. I like you a lot.” If (s)he responds in kind, ask in a non-creepy or suggestive manner if they mean romantically — or say in that same manner something like, “We should date.”

If the person is interested, (s)he will respond with a resounding, “Yes, I do.” or, “Yes, we should!” If the person’s response is negative, nebulous, or noncommittal, take it as a no and do not try again.

Important Exceptions:

If you are in a position of authority over someone, do not suggest a romantic relationship. Period. No good can come of it.

If you are single and available but only seeking casual encounters, look outside of your workplace.

If you are married, do not make advances toward anyone in your professional life. (Ideally, don’t make a pass at anyone other than your spouse, but for the purpose of these guidelines, we’ll leave it at workplace advice.)

If you are unsure whether a coworker is romantically interested in you, do nothing. If you can’t discern whether (s)he is sending you signals of romantic interest, assume there is no interest. (There are countless anecdotes about people who misinterpret a friendly gesture as a romantic overture when someone is merely being warm and friendly or making a joke to a group and happened to be looking at a specific person when they winked to indicate they were kidding.)

Unless you have that confirmed interest and are single and available, looking for a serious relationship, and have real feelings for the (also single and available) coworker who has expressed interest, keep every professional interaction you have completely platonic and appropriate. If you have confirmed mutual interest, proceed with great caution.

Workplace romances can lead to great happiness, but they must begin carefully and respectfully — with a refusal to engage in sexual behavior of any kind until interest has been confirmed and re-affirmed — sober, and with clarity.

Is the potential for a lasting romantic relationship worth taking the risk of a workplace romance gone awry? Sometimes, yes. But if the odds are long that a relationship will be long lasting, it is usually not worth the risk of damaging a professional relationship or office environment or — in the worst cases — negatively impacting someone’s career, including your own.

When in doubt, don’t.

Shannon Fisher is a radio talk show host and a social and political commentator. This article first appeared on Quora.