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Is it #metoo or #meconfused in the workplace?

Posted on: 19 Feb, 18

Recent events have highlighted a shift in acceptable behaviour between people. So where does that leave you in the work place…? is it now Good-Bye to the days of the High-Five? Oury and Clark consider.

Oury says...

Clark, can you help me with something? I’m in a pickle and don’t know what to do and need your advice.

How so, is it about the new tax rules on termination payments coming into effect in the new tax year… or about the increase in employer contributions under the auto-enrolment pension rules?

Clark says...
Oury says...

No, nothing QUITE so exciting… it’s just, oh, how to put this bluntly… I think I’m madly in love with one of my colleagues and I really want to send them a Valentine’s Day card… what do you think?

This is tricky, but no. Unless you know the person socially, and unless you sent it to their home address, in the workplace this may not be considered to be appropriate behaviour and could potentially be perceived by the object of your affections, as harassment…

Clark says...
Oury says...

But I was going to send this anonymously… how would the person know… you’re such a wet squib…

Hmmm – on the valentine’s day card, it’s a difficult one… I think you need to be careful for a number of reasons – firstly (and I’m not saying you’d do this), but if the card had a more “adult” type theme or words, it could amount to sexual harassment, and similarly, if the object of your affections doesn’t feel the same way as you, and the receipt of the card ends up creating a hostile or intimidating environment for the individual, then that too could amount to sexual harassment.

Clark says...
Oury says...

I mean, isn’t this all just political correctness gone crazy… I mean next thing you’ll be telling me I can’t hug a colleague who needs to be comforted… or I’m only allowed to virtual high-5 (like I’m some sort of pariah) when we win a deal… or worse, that I’m not allowed to shake hands when I meet a new client… for fear that this sort of behaviour, that used to be common, decent and acceptable, might be interpreted as some form of harassment… it’s nuts, crazy… crazy…

Calm down, calm down… and don’t come the “good old days” with me! What you have to remember is that every workplace today is way more diverse than it was say a decade ago…and that’s a really good thing… and it’s diverse in ways beyond race and gender, but in a whole variety of ways including disabilities, ethnicity, sexual orientation… the list goes on. Our clients are equally as diverse, and what this means is that we need to be appropriate and correct.

Clark says...
Oury says...

(Grumble grumble)… humpfh political correctness…

On the point of sexual harassment in the work place, it is a serious issue, and it’s been put right in the headlines as a result of the number of high profile individuals that are currently being investigated for alleged impropriety and also the recent Presidents’ Club charity fiasco. Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equalities Act 2010 and it occurs if unwanted behaviour is meant to, or has the effect of violating dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the individual concerned.

Clark says...
Oury says...

So as I said hugging is out…?

Well yes, if the person didn’t want to be hugged and the effect of the hug was to create an intimidating or hostile environment then it would. And it’s important to remember that the individual doesn’t previously have to have objected to the behaviour for it to be unwanted.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Jeez, I hadn’t really thought of it from that perspective, so an innocent touch on the shoulder, if it is unwanted, could amount to sexual harassment.

Exactly and sexual harassment can happen between the sexes or amongst members of the same sex and if anyone is being made to feel really uncomfortable at work due to what would be ultimately called – “sexual harassment”, they can tell their manager / HR in writing and collect evidence for example by keeping a diary. However, if the individual feels comfortable (which they may not), they can also raise this informally with the colleague who has behaved inappropriately and if the harassment doesn’t stop, the individual should raise a formal grievance, using the company’s formal grievance process. A claim can be brought in the Employment Tribunal if the company’s grievance process doesn’t solve the problem. You have to consider, however, that sexual harassment is an extremely serious allegation to make and could have a hugely damaging impact on someone’s career, the business itself which will have to invest huge amounts of time, and ultimately money (the company pays for the damages, not the individual), and indeed your own time and life even as a victim

Clark says...
Oury says...

Yes, I know, it is very serious stuff…

As anyone will tell you, being on either side of this situation is not ideal, and justice is a very blunt instrument. So I am not saying don’t do something formal about it – but to your point Oury – there is a huge sliding scale here and it’s hard to be black and white. So as much as the person causing the offense has a duty to work out how to express themselves in a positive, non-sexual and considerate manner – so does the person who it maybe upsetting – they should try (if at all possible) as best they can to find a diplomatic solution before rolling out the big guns. I think you can use expressions such as: “I don’t like this…” – “I’m sorry to say, but…” – “I find this behaviour inappropriate…” “could you stop behaving in this way please” – “I would really appreciate it if…”. But if the informal approach doesn’t work and the behaviour continues, then yes, there is a formal process on which the individual is able to rely.

Clark says...
Oury says...

So how about the high-5 and the handshake – I guess if you think about these scenarios, they require both parties to respond don’t they, so they’re less likely to be perceived as sexual harassment

Well yes, but you still need to be careful and look out for any signs that this sort of behaviour may be unwanted. For example, if your colleague doesn’t respond to your high-5 and you tried to high-5 the individual repeatedly and you got the same response, then this could potentially be considered unwanted behaviour that gives rise to an intimidating and hostile environment in which case it could potentially give rise to a sexual harassment claim.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Wow - okay - I see

Similarly, with a handshake, you need to be conscious of how long you hold the handshake, as there is nothing worse than being the recipient of a “lingering” handshake, and it could amount to sexual harassment, so you need to be conscious of how any physical contact in the normal course of business and in the workplace is likely to be perceived. Being aware of yourself is difficult, for some more than others – and we have all had different upbringings and appreciations of different behaviours. People have different levels of emotional intelligence. We need to understand where these boundaries are in the workplace. Few us want to work in a cold sterile environment, and some of us value strongly those who are more friendly and are happy to give hug when needed, and some of us are not– everyone just needs to be aware of the boundaries, and they will differ for different people and different scenarios and over time as well. Once a rapport and friendship is established, generally outside of work as well as inside work, and it’s clear to both people that moving from a handshake to say a hug on greeting, then that is between them, and in this scenario a hug would be acceptable. It doesn’t though mean it’s open season to hug anyone you like in the office.

Clark says...
Oury says...

So the clear message is, If in doubt, don’t do it.

Absolutely and It’s a very difficult skill to get right, and emotional intelligence is one of those innate skills that some people are better at than others You should note that generally when people are upset, or happy that they will share that with those they are most close to…

Clark says...
Oury says...

I really like your clarity on this subject and as shocking as all of these allegations are in relation to sexual harassment, it has given rise to the #metoo initiative and it does bring this out in the open – it’s no longer the elephant in the room is it…

no it’s not and it’s a timely reminder of the role we all have to play to ensure that we foster a culture and environment where it is very clear that any sexual harassment will not be tolerated in any way shape or form, and that there are support mechanisms in place to help employees who may find themselves in a situation where they are exposed to this sort of harassment.

Clark says...

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We are but two fictitious characters throwing out ideas and comment to stimulate debate and collect information. As professional service firms, we are open minded people and think independent thought and debate is essential to help understand, as well as navigate, complex problems. By joves – doing business across Europe (and the world) is set to become a whole lot more complex in light of recent seismic political events. As businesses - we provide information and hopefully some wisdom - and we see this blog and its caricatures merely as a much more fun, perhaps slightly controversial way, of stimulating debate and collecting ideas. We’re searching for some true pearls of wisdom, and as we find them, we’ll share them with you.

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