As much as I talk about diversity and fairness, I realize I haven't written on the topic of sexual harassment all that often here. As a matter of fact, I've only touched on it a few times, and only have one post on the specific topic, where I talked about potential violations when it's agreed that it occurred in a work situation.

street harassment is a crime poster
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Some years ago I gave a presentation at a local college on the topic of sexual harassment. I talked about a lot of things, but one of the most important things I talked about was also the one that got the most attention and activity in the classroom.

It was on the topic of initiators of harassment. This is a tough one because it's easy to put out the types of things that can cause harassment, but it's not always as easy to define what might be considered harassment in that area. Some things are clear cut while others are pretty dicey. Let's take a look at some of these.

1. Words

You might think this would be the easiest one to identify but it's probably the hardest. Think about it for a minute. Whether you're male or female, how often have you gone out to a diner or small local restaurant and had the person waiting on you refer to you as "darling", "honey", "dear", "babe" or something along those lines? Whether they're male or female, or whether you're male or female, do you see that as harassment? Probably not.

What about at work? One of my wife's friends called everyone "honey", whether at work or outside. It was just her way of addressing people without having to wait to remember their name. There are lots of people who use this kind of terminology; is it necessarily harassment?

Words themselves are hard to define by themselves. It takes context and situation to determine when it's inappropriate behavior. Of course, the truly smart employee won't take any chances, because one never knows when they might be addressing someone who'll take it wrong, regardless of consequence. Still, think about these terms a bit more; what's your general thought?

2. Actions

Some of these are fairly obvious, while others aren't; let's look at different types of actions:

a) touching

Always inappropriate in today's world, although I've been in many business offices where I see this type of thing going on. Frankly, it's the most dangerous thing to do and I'd never recommend anyone engage in it while at work.

b) staring

This one is tougher sometimes. When I'm engaged in conversation and I hear something that makes me think (many times it's something I find a bit stupid) I tend to stare at the person while thinking it over. I've been told it can throw people off, but it prevents me from saying something I might have to take back later on.

That could be seen as intimidating, but is it harassment? By law, intimidation is considered a work violation refers to repetitious mistreatment of someone which causes them major health, emotional and psychological problems. Behaviors might include verbal abuse, putting you down and ridiculing you in front of others along with sabotaging or stealing credit for your work. Nonverbal actions would be circumstances that limit your ability to do your job. Based on this, my kind of staring wouldn't be considered harassment.

However, if I were staring at a woman's body part with a leer on my face... that would definitely be harassment. For that matter, staring at a male's body part would fit that also. Once again, it falls under context.

sexual harassment ?
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c) body language

Remember that leering thing? That's definitely a body language harassment vehicle. I've seen instances where men and women lick their lips when looking at someone they think looks nice. I've seen the eyes roll in a seductive or encouraging way. Those are the least overt actions; y'all know what types of things are worse. Don't do this!

d) job actions

Using sex as a weapon at work is definitely harassment, and most lawsuits for harassment center on these two things: 1) passing over for promotions; 2) promises for promotions. The first isn't predicated on sexual situations specifically, but definitely is decided based on the sex or sex and ethnicity of the individual. The second is definitely related to sex, is disgusting and abhorrent, and there's not even a question of harassment.

3. "Advertisements"

Once again, this is a difficult one because what someone from the outside might see isn't always the truth. Let's take a look at three things that can be misleading and go both ways.

a) pictures

Putting pictures of up sexy men or women could make someone else uncomfortable. When I first went to work in a hospital I was the only male in the entire business office. On the back of the bathroom door in the office was a pin-up picture of Tom Selleck. For whatever reason it made me uncomfortable, but I didn't think of it as harassment. Instead, I went to a different bathroom outside the office, the men's room, and all was good.

b) calendars

Years later I was the director at another hospital. Like most young single men, I had a favorite female celebrity and at the time it was Kathy Ireland, the Sports Illustrated cover model. The women who worked for me knew it, so they bought me the calendar and calendar book that had her on the cover two Christmases in a row. I'd have never thought about buying either one of these things, let alone putting them up at work. But they encouraged me, so I put them on my wall. There was no harassment and I never thought twice about it at that point, but the older me just 5 years later would have never allowed such a thing, and would have never mentioned Kathy Ireland the model (though I did mention Mariah Carey the singer) in public.

c) clothing

This one was a bit different. I had a secretary who was tiny and thus wore clothes that were tiny also. There were some women who felt intimidated by the way she dressed and often complained to me and HR that her clothes were too tight.

I pointed out that there were women who were quite a bit larger than her and that their clothes were not only just as tight, but probably tighter. In the end, the hospital decided what she was wearing was business appropriate and the matter was dropped. However, something like this points out how clothing could be considered as borderline, even in the best of circumstances.

Overall, it's my belief that the majority of men and women know when they're being sexually harassed and when they're doing the harassing. People need to think of their actions and deportment at work to try to avoid the claim of impropriety. If it's blatant... well, check the link above and see the types of things that can happen. If it's not, you might be absolved, but at what cost to your demeanor and reputation?

Something to think about.