Compliments directed towards you may or may not be sexual harassment, depending on the context and whether the comments created a hostile work environment.
Below, we provide some insight into deciphering when compliments cross the line and become sexual harassment, and what to do if you are the victim of sexual harassment at work.
When might a compliment be sexual harassment?
Common sense will likely determine whether a coworker or boss is simply making nice remarks or is harassing you. If the compliments make you uneasy and feel inappropriate, you should make it known that you do not welcome the “compliments” and you are not comfortable with them and want them to cease.
Legally, whether certain comments are improper depends on the:
- Nature of the relationship (e.g., a friend at work you are close with vs. a senior officer you are not close with)
- Pattern of behavior
For instance, if your boss tells you that you dress too suggestively and you should dress more conservatively for work, that is not harassment. If, on the other hand, he tells you that revealing clothes impress him and asks you to wear them more often, then it could be harassment.
Similarly, a genuine compliment like, “That’s a nice skirt,” is not harassment, but if the speaker follows it up with something sexual or inappropriate like, “It really shows off your backside,” then it may be sexual harassment.
Legally, these kinds of remarks will not be deemed to have crossed the line from harmless compliments to sexual harassment unless they are unwelcome, offensive, repeated, and make it more difficult for you to perform your job.
Each case is unique, but if your gut instinct is telling you something is not right, it probably isn’t.
How can I tell if a compliment is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is not a scientific or precise concept. It is in large part subjective, based on how certain conduct makes you feel. Any type of unsolicited physical contact that accompanies a compliment could make you feel uncomfortable, depending on the person, the nature of the touching, and the nature of the compliment. Obviously, any type of groping, pinching, touching, or licking would be completely inappropriate, unless it were welcomed. Suggestive gestures or invasion of your personal space can also turn a compliment into sexual harassment.
However, there does not have to be physical contact for the law to consider certain comments and behaviors harassment, if the comments and behavior are offensive, unwelcome, and serious. In addition, harassment can be female to male, vice versa, or same sex.
Any unsolicited, sexual, suggestive comments that make the work environment seem abusive or hostile may indicate sexual harassment. The following short checklist can help you decide if a coworker or supervisor has subjected you to workplace sexual harassment:
- Do the comments alarm or frighten you?
- Have you made it clear that you are uncomfortable with the remarks and yet they continue?
- Are the compliments sexual or suggestive in nature?
- Does the context of the compliments make them inappropriate?
- Do the compliments have any negative effect on your job performance? For example, do they make you want to avoid your boss, dread coming to work, or worry about your next encounter?
Sexual Harassment Gray Areas
There is no definitive line between a compliment and sexual harassment. For example, is the compliment, “You are beautiful,” considered harassment? It depends. Most employers would frown on a supervisor saying this to an employee because it is not an appropriate workplace comment and could easily be construed as an unwanted invitation to intimacy. However, if the recipient is not offended and does not perceive the comment to be troublesome, it would not be deemed sexual harassment under the law.
In some cases, someone will make a remark without realizing its potential to offend, and he or she will apologize if it causes offense. President Obama’s conduct in 2013 is a good illustration of this.
At a fundraiser, Obama introduced California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris as brilliant, dedicated, tough, and “by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Some people questioned the appropriateness of his remark. The President later called Harris to apologize if his remark offended her.
The best way to know for sure if your case qualifies as sexual harassment is to speak to an experienced employment lawyer.
What can I do if I think I am being harassed at work?
The subject of sexual harassment is complex. A report of conduct that makes the employee feel uncomfortable can lead to the disciplining or termination of the offending employee even if the conduct does not rise to the level of illegal sexual harassment. This is because many employers take the subject so seriously that they will not permit conduct that seems even slightly questionable. For this and other reasons, it is best to approach the person directly and tell them that you are not comfortable with the compliments they’ve been giving you and that you would like them to stop. You can say this as politely or as bluntly as the situation calls for, but you should make it clear that you want the compliments to stop. This fulfills your own duty to let them know their compliments are not welcome, and at the same time gives them the opportunity to change their behavior.
However, if the behavior continues, you should not hesitate to report it to your supervisor or to whomever your employee manual or the company sexual harassment policy says you should report it to.
No one should remain the subject of harassment in the workplace. The law protects you and gives you the right to a safe, non-hostile work environment. If you think you are a victim of sexual harassment at work, report it to your supervisor (or another superior or your human resources department if your supervisor is the individual harassing you).
Then, schedule a consultation with an employment law attorney at Robert A. Klingler Co., L.P.A. to discuss your next steps: 513-665-9500.