Hey, everyone! I know we’ve been hearing a lot about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace and that seems kind of scary, like there’s a lot of it going around, right? Well, the bad news is that there is. There absolutely is. And there has been for a very long time. Basically since “workplaces” were a concept. I guess this has made some “friendly” men worried that their “friendly” gestures might actually be “harassment” and let me reassure you; some of you are totally right. Some other people are worried that the future of workplaces romances is in jeopardy if men can’t “flirt” with their subordinates and you know what, that could very well be true!
But, in an effort to help the nation, I’m going to try and breakdown some common “gray areas” from an expert perspective. What makes me an expert? Well, I’ve had a variety of workplaces over the years from college dorms, to retail, to backstage in theaters, to a traditional office setting and a wide variety of workplace interactions. The theater job had me literally undressing people down to thong underwear and then dressing them again. There were still very clear professional boundaries to maintain, and ways that one could transgress them! Yes, even with my hands basically on an almost fully naked person, I was able to maintain a courteous and professional demeanor. And when I did end up in a workplace romance, we were both very careful to keep most of that romance outside of the office, where it has continued to flourish.
Here’s some handy tips and guidelines to help you not accidentally sexually harass anyone at your workplace:
1. If someone’s job depends on them being attentive to or deferential with you, that’s not a sign of interest: I know it can feel very flattering when someone you manage or supervise seems to know your schedule, how you take your coffee, and even remembers little stories and anecdotes you’ve shared with them, but chances are they’re doing that because you’re their boss and they want to impress you and/or their job literally depends on knowing the right time to catch your ear and the right introduction to a question. Do not assume they are romantically interested in you.
2. Workplaces are not hug places: I expect to get a bit of pushback on this, but I feel like the default status for all offices should be “no hugging” and special circumstances can be worked out by asking permission. Hugging in the office is awful for a significant number of people. I’m one of them! This Ask a Manager letter haunts my very dreams. Hugging is not an appropriate way to show employee appreciation, you do that with public accolades, promotions, or raises. If you feel like you’re having an emotional moment with a coworker and really want to hug them, say “May I hug you?” and be totally prepared to hear “no thank you.” Don’t put your arms up before they answer. Those of you worried about office romances, rest easy; I am living proof that you can successfully start and maintain a romance with a coworker without ever once hugging each other in the office. That’s what your outside the office time is for. Among other office-inappropriate activities, which leads me to …
3. Don’t show anyone your genitals unless they are in a genital-related profession: Showing your genitals to your doctor? Totally acceptable. Your doctor showing their genitals to you? Nope. Showing your genitals to your coworker who is not a doctor? Also nope. Not even photos. This is not a good way to “gauge interest”, I promise you, if someone really wants to see your genitals they will find a way to let you know.
4. You can compliment people’s clothes without complimenting their bodies: Complimenting a coworker on their outfit or hairstyle is, generally, a nice thing to do. Here’s how you do it: “Why, The Tick, that’s a lovely shirt you have on. And your hair looks very nice!” Here’s how you don’t do it: “Why, Dr. Girlfriend, that dress sure does suit your figure. And your hair is so INTERESTING, can I touch it?” Anything that veers away from the clothing to a comment on that person’s physique or ethnicity is inappropriate and yes, we can tell what it means when you compliment our pants and then VERY OBVIOUSLY look straight at our ass. Don’t do that either.
5. It’s not flirting if you have to trap or trick the person you’re flirting with to do it: LOOKING AT YOU, MATT LAUER’S CREEPY DESK LOCK BUTTON! But also, in general, if you tell someone you need to discuss a business mater with them as a pretense to ask them personal questions and/or advance a romantic goal, that is not ok. Mentoring younger employees? Good! Asking younger employees out to lunch for a “mentoring” session when really you’re just trying to ask for their number and tell them how much you enjoy their “spirit”? Fucking awful!
6. If you must make a romantic overture, do it outside of the office: From personal experience; you want to ask the object of your affection to socialize outside of the office. Make it clear it’s a social invitation, if they decline don’t press, and if you get a brush off twice then stop asking. If they are willing to socialize outside the office, then from there you can gently put out if they’re interested in a romantic relationship but, still, be willing to back off at the first sign of hesitation.
7. Bonus Advice for Parties! For those of you specifically worried about holiday parties this week, let me give you some advice that women have been given for YEARS regarding these events: Don’t drink too much, travel in packs so you can keep an eye on each other, keep conversation light, and don’t be the last person to leave. You’d be amazed how much fun you can have nursing two drinks all night, making sure to check in with your best friend every 10 minutes to keep an eye on them, and calling a cab at the exact moment the event officially ends! I mean, not really, but at least if everyone’s working on the same level then maybe we can ALL enjoy an evening of polite conversation about the weather, mediocre chardonnay, and not waking up to terse emails from HR.
I see you looking askance at me, but offered the choice between that evening and the one where a coworker gropes your ass at the bar and tries to talk you into his cab, I know which one I’m picking. And now, that coworker should know too. Now, go forth and enjoy polite and non-litigious relationships with your coworkers!