Sex: an employee's guide

When is an office affair a bad idea? When does touching constitute harassment? In the first extract from her new book, Judi James explains
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Indy Lifestyle Online
SEX at work is one of life's great inevitables. The office affair has - and always will be - a regular form of business culture, along with all the little core industries that thrive on it, like gossiping, speculating and rumour-spreading. Sex has been used to launch some careers - via the casting couch - but it has always been known to scupper them, too. In terms of job security, it is always a risky option.

During the recent wave of political correctness, sex became banned at work along with smoking, although (unlike smoking) no rooms were put aside in offices for people who still wanted to indulge. Sexual harassment evolved from being a boss's perk into a legal minefield, with reported cases increasing steadily as both male and female staff realised bullying and victimisation weren't the only options.

So how does the current climate of sex in the workplace look? A recent survey of office workers showed that at least 40 per cent claimed to have had a romance or an affair with a colleague, so business is obviously still booming. Companies are also becoming increasingly aware of their duties in protecting harassed employees, although the situation is far from perfect. At one end of the scale, the age-old problems still exist. Staff are harassed - and badly so. At the other end of the scale, nervous, politically aware managers are barricading themselves in their offices away from the opposite sex, fearful that one glance in the opposite direction may lead to a court case. In the meantime there are mutually attracted people meeting partners at work and having to navigate through all the unexpected perils of an on-going desk-bound relationship.

Putting legal guidelines to one side for a moment, it is important to remember that we all view the world through different sets of eyes. You have your own perceptions of what is inappropriate or intolerable behaviour, but even those standards may be flexible. For instance you may well be more tolerant towards people you like than those you can't stand. Or you might laugh loud and long at a blue joke told by a comedian you find funny but take a priggish U-turn if the geek at the next desk uses the same kind of language.

What is considered right or wrong behaviour is largely a matter of personal perception. It is possible to offer guidelines for top-of-the-range misdemeanours, but who can tell someone they are wrong if they find very minor transgressions a virtual hanging offence?

The whole area of inappropriate behaviour is murky. For instance, there would surely be a unanimous show of hands if I asked whether compliments of personal appearance should be out of bounds at work. And if you shook your head till the dandruff fell over that one, think: surely it depends what particular part of the anatomy you are complimenting?

We are in the era of the PPC (Post-Political Correctness), which in turn was a backlash to the macho Eighties, which followed the heavy feminism of the Seventies, which came in the wake of the permissive Sixties ... and so on.

Wherever the tidemark of law and conventional boundaries settles, though, you must always be flexible in a downward direction. None of us is "right" in our perceptions. We only hold a viewpoint, but that view is our own standard and should be respected by others.

Sexual harassment is bullying of the worst kind and most companies are at great pains to stamp it out.

The Industrial Society defines sexual harassment as offensive and humiliating behaviour of a sexual nature which is uninvited and unwelcomed by the person at whom it is directed. It may be expressed physically, verbally, through body language, on paper or screen, either through letters or through the display of sexually suggestive or explicit material.

It's become the business bogeyman/ woman for many working cultures. The sensitive are terrified of making one inadvertent false move. The guilty cite cases of overblown political correctness to prove matters have been taken too far and claim a little healthy groping here and there would keep us all out of the madhouse.

Anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment. Men as well as women fall foul of inappropriate behaviour and men and women can both be considered victims if they happen to be unfairly accused.

In the desire to blame the guilty, the innocent may also suffer. Lurid tales hit the headlines and suddenly every man is seen as potentially predatory while all women are victims.

Striking a balance is difficult. Again perception comes into the equation. Cases that are brought to law will always arouse controversy. Behaviour might be wrong but punishment may be seen to be out of proportion. But who is to decide how severe the crisis is? What sends one person reaching for the smelling salts may drive another to loud guffaws of derisive laughter. Many women are quite capable of taking care of themselves in the majority of situations, and some feel threatened by the fact that the courts could imply women are still very much the weaker sex.

I asked many working men whether they had ever been harassed in the workplace and the stock response was something along the lines of "I wish", or a lot of mocking laughter. Not one man volunteered the fact that he had, and most "No"s were emphatic and instant. Yet when questioned a little further, it seemed many of them had been harassed within the strictest definition of the term. It was just that they didn't view the behaviour as harassment. To most of them it was just a bit of a laugh. The worst emotion was the embarrassment induced by the telling of the tale. Very few of them felt threatened by the behaviour. Yet if they had been women describing the treatment they'd received the harassment would have been obvious.

It is a myth, though, that only men make harassers. Women can be just as feral, can maybe get away with more, and the victims will expect less sympathy. Some women even feel the harassment is justified under the premise of setting the record straight. One guy I interviewed had his shirt torn off by female co-workers at a Christmas party. He said he didn't want this to happen but felt pressured to see the incident as a bit of a laugh.

Being a manager does not give you instant droit de seigneur around the office. And yet many bosses seem to feel that the odd titillation is one of the perks of the job. Being a manager makes the appropriate behaviour even more crucial because you have the opportunity to abuse your own power.

Staff are unable to respond in a normal way to the boss because he or she may well hold their future livelihood in their craw. Because people are forced to be polite to you is no reason to assume they lust after, or even like you.

Managers must be above reproach in their behaviour and they should also ensure there is no sexual bullying going on further down the line, either. There's nothing difficult about this. You don't need to live in mortal fear of saying or doing something untoward. Just keep that rampant sex- god side of your nature in check until you get home, that's all. Was it ever in the job description in the first place? I thought not.

Tomorrow: The rules for a successful working relationship, including: chat-up, etiquette, uncontrollable passions. Sex At Work: A Survival Guide by Judi James is available in bookshops from Friday 3 April, price pounds 8.99, or call 0121 410 3040

Keeping in touch

For certain professions only:

Profuse huggy greetings (media or acting-based professions only)

Cupped hand to other's face (medical-based caring professions only)

The two-handed shake (doorstepping politicians, still not recommended)

Arm-holding handshakes (heavy duty salesmen, although, again, not to be recommended)

Foot touching (chiropody)

Strictly out of bounds and yet still regularly documented:

Shoulder hugging (possibly matey but potentially dodgy)

Total-torso body squeezing (creating a small gap in doorways or past filing cabinets by blocking with own body and forcing victim to squeeze through)

Bottom-patting (forget it - under no circumstances)

Thigh-patting (ditto)

Hand-holding (there are many other ways of getting someone's attention)

Bosom brushing (did you really think anyone would believe it was accidental?)

Leg brushing (ditto)

Top 10 reasons offered to excuse sexist behaviour

I'm too old to change my ways

I'm just a friendly sort of person

I'm just a tactile sort of person

I don't mean anything by it

I was only joking

Nobody else minds

I thought you liked it

Don't tell me you're one of those militant feminists

Don't worry about me, I'm past it

I'm afraid I'm from the old school and believe in treating women like ladies

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