When are social interactions with colleagues at risk of turning into sexual harassment or misconduct? People Matters spoke to Maggie Smith, Vice President of Human Resources at Traliant, a company that specialises in training employees on how to prevent workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.
The first factor to consider is what exactly constitutes such deviant behaviour, whether employees are working in a shared physical environment or working from home or online.
"Sexual harassment," Smith said, "is a form of sex discrimination that includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or other verbal, physical or visual harassment of a sexual nature. It can also include unwanted behaviour related to someone’s gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation."
Some examples are:
-- Jokes of a sexual nature that have no place in a professional workspace
-- Any suggestive emails, messaging, or texting that constitutes an unwanted advance
-- Comments about an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity
-- Any sexual signage or posters in the workplace (this could include a suggestive calendar that’s visible and offensive to colleagues when on a video call)
-- If a co-worker or boss makes sexual comments about an employee’s attire or body
"Managers can almost never have relationships with people who work for them or are in their chain of command," Smith said.
There are instances when even a consensual relationship can result in favouritism or unfair advantage for some, owing to the power structure of the relationship. "Quid pro quo sexual harassment is harassment that involves one person offering some type of benefit in exchange for some form of sexual favour," Smith explained.
Usually, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs between a supervisor and a subordinate. An example of quid pro quo sexual harassment would be if a supervisor were to promise a raise and/or promotion in exchange for a sexual favour from their subordinate.
The #MeToo movement in recent years has exposed how power relations between errant bosses, often male, and their subordinates, often younger females, leave many powerless against their aggressors.
As Smith pointed out, a person of any gender and position can be a harasser or target of harassment: "Harassers can be supervisors, managers, co-workers, vendors, contractors, suppliers, customers or clients."
And, in a world pivoting towards hybrid working, employers should also take note that sexual harassment need not actually involve physical contact.
"As more workplaces have become virtual since the COVID-19 pandemic, harassment continues to be a major issue for many organisations across industries," Smith said. "Whether it’s subtle or obvious, in-person or online, harassing behaviour is wrong."
How can employers and employees alike prevent misconduct at work? "Providing all managers and employees with harassment prevention training is one of the positive steps that organisations can take to raise awareness, foster a speak-up culture, and reassure individuals that they won’t be retaliated against for reporting misconduct," Smith said.
Some organisations also introduce office dating policies and "love contracts," an agreement signed by the couple and upheld by the employer, which requires those in a consensual relationship to abide by certain ethical standards at work. A "love contract" also serves to limit the employer's liability, should the relationship fail and the employees choose to remain with the company.
"Like any workplace policy, it’s important to clearly communicate what is and isn’t allowed so that everyone involved is on the same page about the rules surrounding an office romance," Smith said.