How not to be the office sex pest
In this litigious society, there's a fine line between friendly and inappropriate, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
When Mad Men first aired on our screens, much of its success was owed to the shock factor. The series, set in a 1960s advertising agency on Madison Avenue, portrayed cavalier sexism, predatory behaviour towards secretaries and general sexual harassment as the order of the day.
However, unwanted sexual overtures, crude jokes, and wandering hands are not the preserve of the 1960s workplace. Thanks to a minefield of legislation, sexual harassment may no longer be as blatant but it still permeates many a modern-day office.
Even venerated institutions such as the BBC are not immune. A review into the broadcaster's working environment, set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, revealed that there were 37 complaints of sexual harassment in the past six years.
Earlier this year, a charity support worker in Northern Ireland was awarded more than £12,000 by a tribunal after being harassed by a colleague. The man admitted to tickling her feet, hugging her and calling her "woman". He also accepted he told her to cook as "that is woman's work", asked about her sex life and slapped her bottom.
Rowan Manahan, managing director of Fortify Services, a human-resources consultancy, and a contributor to the career slot on Tubridy on 2fm, believes a small minority of men are making some workplaces unbearable for female workers.
"Their behaviour is calculated and repeated and when they get caught, they show no remorse," he said. "I've had a number of clients emotionally damaged by laddish, loutish behaviour that nobody should put up with."
But, in an era of widespread unemployment, workers who suffer from unwanted sexual attention can't always find another job. If they report harassment to their employer, they may feel labelled as a trouble-maker.
It doesn't help matters that workers who enjoy banter and flirting are sometimes unsure whether their behaviour borders on sexual harassment. If you have any doubts, the following are six common dilemmas and suggestions from employment experts:
"I'm a 32-year-old single man and I've taken a fancy to a younger female colleague. She appears to enjoy my jokes but I still can't determine if she sees me as anything other than a colleague. Is there a way I can find out without being sent to the HR manager?"
Dear single man, it may well be that your interest is requited and that the pair of you are destined to marry, have two children and a large mortgage. Unfortunately, that is not the point, at least from the perspective of your employer.
According to Jane Downes, a career coach, you cannot afford to misread the situation.
"It's a real challenge to see whether this person is potentially interested in you," she said. "It's about building a rapport without being sexually overt. Be discreet for a start and have all eyes and ears open. If your gut instinct tells you she's interested, then tell her. But don't blurt it out on a work night out after consuming alcohol – it could all go wrong."
"I'm a line manager at a large company and I keep hearing rumours that one of my male employees has a penchant for touching up some of our younger female workers. Should I quietly ask him to leave?"
You could, but you may be creating even more headaches for yourself. To even suggest he might like to quit would leave your company wide open to a claim for constructive dismissal, according to Melanie Crowley, a partner at law firm Mason Hayes & Curran.
However, you may still be under an obligation to investigate whether the gossip is true, to protect both the worker accused of having wandering hands and the women he is supposedly groping.
"It may be that such an investigation yields nothing but, at the very least, an employer should talk to the alleged groper and perhaps some of the employees," she said.
"Last month, I told a female colleague that the dress she was wearing really suited her. I thought I was being complimentary but she looked offended and hasn't spoken to me since. What did I do wrong?"
For co-workers who like to share the minutiae of their daily lives, this comment might seem harmless. Others prefer all interaction at work to be strictly professional and could perceive any comment on their appearance as disrespectful.
Don't exclude the possibility that it was your delivery of the compliment – rather than the words themselves – that caused offense. Were your eyes directed at her face rather than her cleavage?
"The key thing here is intent and context," Manahan said. "A lot of people doing questionable things have one eye over their shoulder and wondering whether they can get away with it again.
"On other hand, there are people who are utterly bewildered when someone says 'when you do that, it makes me very uncomfortable. Stop doing that'."
"I'm the proud owner of my own business and I consider my employees to be part of the family. Sometimes, I find myself calling some of the young women 'pet', a term I often use with my daughters. I recently hired a lovely young girl but she asked me last week to stop calling her pet. Am I now the office pervert?"
Listen love, you are clearly no caveman. The working environment you have created appears to be quite pleasant.
It may feel embarrassing to be called out on your nicknames by this new employee, but seize it as an opportunity to find out whether others are uncomfortable with such a term of affection in their workplace.
"A certain percentage of women find it extremely offensive to be called love or pet," Manahan said. "Is it enough to require removal to Guantanamo Bay for re-education? Perhaps not. There is a big difference between some benign, gentlemanly person calling you pet and some guy leering at a girl in the office. The litmus test is whether that behaviour causes upset."
"I've just been promoted to manager but it appears I'll now be in charge of a female colleague who has been flirting with me for years. It's never bothered me before but I worry her flirtation will undermine my credibility as manager. Should I just hope she cools off?"
"I've seen women making inappropriate comments to men. I think there's always an element of 'sure he's married and it's only a laugh'," Jane Downes said.
"You do need a sense of humour but you also need to educate your colleagues about your boundaries. If you complain, you can be seen as a pain in the ass. So deal directly with the person first.
"If that approach doesn't work and her flirting becomes even more outrageous, your organisation should have a staff member it has appointed to help resolve issues like this on an informal basis," Melanie Crowley said.
"A good friend of mine works with me, but he's not very discreet when it comes to sizing up the ladies in the office. He also attracts a few stares when he loudly appreciates the physical attributes of female celebrities. I find him funny but I think he's making some of our female co-workers uncomfortable. Should I tell him to stop?"
Yes. His sexual mischievousness might be amusing to group of lads in the pub after a couple of pints, but there is no room for it in the workplace. Even if he doesn't mean to offend, that will be no defence if a female colleague files a complaint.
"At the very least, you should indicate that while you do not find his comments offensive, others in the office may do so and he could be exposing himself to a complaint," Crowley said.
"Because the definition of sexual harassment says that it is not just the purpose of the conduct but also the effect, the reality is that the test is incredibly subjective. What amounts to sexual harassment or unwelcome behaviour for one person is totally different for another person. The intention of the alleged harasser is totally irrelevant."