When a hug can really hurt

Definitions of harassment are still foggy in British workplaces,

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
The number of schools converting to academies in the primary sector has now overtaken those in the secondary sector – 2,299 to 1,884 (Getty)  

In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee