Ellen E Jones spells out what is and isn’t acceptable in the modern workplace
It seems every workplace in the land is being rocked by a sexual harassment scandal. And if even national leaders and heads of giant corporations are so flummoxed by the line between bad office etiquette, behaviour that requires disciplinary proceedings and criminal sexual harassment, what hope is there for the average office dinosaur? Here, by way of clarification, are 10 common scenarios and suggestions on how to navigate them with your dignity (almost) intact.
Scenario 1: “I am a single man and fancy one of my colleagues, who is younger than and junior to me. Is there an ‘appropriate’ way I can take our friendship to a sexual level?”
Not really, no. Sorry. Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that your wit always translates perfectly on the intra-office email and the harsh office lighting sets off your silver fox mane a treat; you are the George Clooneyest mofo ever to wield a Ryman’s stapler. Your younger, junior colleague definitely fancies you, but sadly that’s not really the issue here. As Sarah Culshaw, a partner in the employment team at Collyer Bristow Solicitors, can attest, it’s not how you get into it that matters, it’s how you get out. “I’ve had several cases where I’ve been acting for individuals where it’s gone wrong and the junior person is then complaining and there’s enough evidence that makes it look as though it was part of a harassment scenario.” In short: it’s not illegal. But it’s not a good idea, either.
Scenario 2: “I keep hearing general gossip that one of my employees likes to grope junior staff but no one has come forward with hard evidence. My instinct is to ask him quietly to leave. Is this wrong?”
Contrary to the apparent confusion over at Lib Dem HQ, there are clear guidelines to follow. First off, you can forget about having a quiet word. This would be grounds for an unfair dismissal claim. Steve Williams, head of equality at the government-funded Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), says a formal investigation followed by a proper disciplinary process is called for, even in the case of “gossip”. That might sound unduly heavy-handed, but it protects Gropey McGroperson too. “Even if these rumours are not true you need to find out why they are circulating and whether there is something about this person’s management style that is leading to them.” Got that, Mr Clegg?
Scenario 3: I run a small business and treat my employees like a family. I occasionally refer to the young ladies who work for me as “sweetheart” or “love”. A new employee recently asked if I would use her Christian name instead. Is she overreacting? Or am I out of date?
Look at it like this, treacle: you obviously aim to create a friendly working environment, which is nice, so your new employee has done you a favour by revealing that your nicknames may not always be as well received as they are intended. Perhaps your other female employees enjoy your avuncular manner – or perhaps they’d also prefer to communicate as one adult to another. Either way, you now have the perfect opportunity to raise the issue and find out for sure. As for the individual employee in question, Jeff Havens, author of The Super Awesome Book of Office Etiquette, has a suggestion: “Since I’m guessing that you wouldn’t be OK with her calling you ‘grandpa’ or ‘village elder’, you should respect the fact that she would prefer to be called by her name.”
Scenario 4: A junior colleague has put on weight and started wearing baggy clothing. I suspect she is trying to hide a pregnancy and would like to avoid major disruption by beginning preparations for her maternity leave as soon as possible. Is it OK to just ask?
This is one of those situations where a manager, powerful and beneficent as he no doubt is, must regrettably accept the limits of his purview. To wit: other people’s wombs. “Even if you suspect it, you shouldn’t say ‘Are you pregnant?’ or even ask other people if she is, because that might result in some sort of sex discrimination claim,” says Culshaw. In other words, you could ask her if she’s pregnant, but a simple enquiry after the pies, and who ate them all, would probably achieve the same effect and be less legally complicated.*
Remember also that the law incentivises women to give you fair notice, anyway. “Basically, if she’s going to get her benefits, she’s obliged to notify you 15 weeks before the due date.”
Scenario 5: A female colleague has always behaved towards me in a flirtatious manner. It never really bothered me, but following a recent promotion I’m now her line manager and I’m worried it’s become inappropriate. How can I cool things off?
Steve Williams of Acas confirms that your instincts are correct: “It would be unfair on your female colleague and other members of the team if they thought that she was somehow your favourite as a result of any flirtation.” But how to pull off this delicate transition without causing undue embarrassment? Don’t single her out for a tête-à-tête – that could easily be misinterpreted. Instead, call a meeting to remind all your new juniors that your promotion means the tone of your interactions with them will change. True, you’ll come off like an officious, stuck-in-the-mud, Billy no-mates – but that’s why they pay you the big bucks. Welcome to management!
By Ellen E. Jones
As originally seen on www.independent.co.uk