When a hug can really hurt

Definitions of harassment are still foggy in British workplaces,

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When Anthony Verity, headmaster of Dulwich College, was accused of sexual harassment by a school secretary, it started months of trouble for him and his school as the governors pondered the case. Mr Verity was cleared of harassment but resigned this week after the governors found he had allowed an "inappropriate" relationship to develop.

Such "inappropriate" behaviour, and when it turns into harassment, and when that should end someone's career are all increasing problems in the workplace, and many cases end up in industrial tribunals. How can you avoid being accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour?

First, you need to be aware of the culture of the organisation where you work, and the perceived effect your behaviour is having on another person. Research by a Dutch psychologist, Geert Hofstede, suggests that this internal culture is different from that of the outside world, which is based in the shared values learnt in childhood. Organisational cultures are rooted in shared practices, changing and adapting as new members join as adults. Within a workplace, different branches and departments will have their own cultures. The factory floor might be adorned with girlie posters which would seem out of place in the boardroom.

Until fairly recently employees in many organisations were all white males, or men held management jobs with a few women in stereotypical female jobs and in lower positions in the organisation. Cultures developed based on the beliefs and values of the men who worked there; a woman's place was definitely in the home or the typing pool.

Women had to accept the dominant male culture if they wished to remain in their jobs in these organisations, and they were forced to develop coping strategies to deal with unwelcome verbal or physical attention they received.

The workplace is now undergoing rapid change, and many of the strongly held values that made up an organisation's culture are changing, too. Many more employees come from different national cultures, bringing different attitudes with them. There are also many more women in the workforce who have gained strength to reject chauvinistic behaviour. Women are far more likely to speak out and complain about behaviour. A man who has failed to keep up with the changed attitudes of his office, school or factory can be completely amazed to be thus accused.

Introduction of equal opportunities legislation has forced organisations to look more carefully at their treatment of women. Many are now including a clause in employment contracts setting out what is permissible behaviour.

This helps people to set boundaries and not base assumptions about what is acceptable on their own experience. When in close contact with someone at work, it is essential to separate behaviour that is acceptable in a social situation from that acceptable at work. For example, kissing guests on the cheek may be appropriate at a dinner party, but it would be most inappropriate at work.

I once visited a company to look at alternative work for employees following restructuring. I was with some employees who were describing the work they were doing. One of them was a young, rather quiet, woman. While watching them at work, an older man came up and put his arms right round the young woman in what could be perceived as a bear hug. The woman froze but he was unaware of the effect he was having.

I asked the woman about the incident, and she said that he always did this and how she hated it. She became quite distressed on recounting examples. I then spoke to the man in question, who was completely amazed on hearing she was upset. He said he had a daughter her age and that he perceived that he was acting in a fatherly manner! He would have been extremely shocked if a complaint had been made of sexual harassment.

That is an extreme case. But in the normal day-to-day banter of working life there are also problems. For example, is it acceptable for a man to comment on a female colleague's appearance? How do you know whether this is acceptable? What should you look for? You may perceive that you are giving her a compliment, or being friendly, but she may perceive it as offensive. First ask yourself if a similar remark would be made to a male colleague. Any such remarks that can be misinterpreted at work should not be made. It's better just to keep quiet.

Of course, people look to work for friendship and romance. They need always to be aware of the dangers of allowing their personal and professional lives to overlap - although this can be difficult in the heat of the office Christmas party.

To avoid charges of sexual harassment being made and to establish the boundaries of what is permissible, the organisation may need to change its practices. The best way for managers to do this is simple - ask the women what they think. Hold meetings with women from all levels of the organisation, using an outsider to run the meeting to encourage total openness. A document should then be produced, clearly detailing the agreed acceptable boundaries for each particular work site or office with examples of what is meant. Procedures for dealing with any incidents can be established so they can be quickly dealt with.

Of course, as women move into the workplace, harassment will not be all one way, and women must be sensitive to men's feelings. While the film Disclosure - in which Demi Moore seduces an unwilling Michael Douglas and then accuses him of harassing her - is a Hollywood exaggeration, examples are emerging of men complaining of unwelcome and embarrassing teasing and touching from female colleagues.

Men and women could benefit from increased sensitivity to the feelings of others. They should take cases like Dulwich College as a horrible warning to what can happen if "inappropriate" behaviour is not nipped firmly in the bud.

The author is an occupational psychologist.

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