It doesn't take a genius to tell sexual harassment at workplace from a polite expression of romantic interest. Yet, following an allegation of sexual harassment against TVF's Arunabh Kumar, it became pretty evident that the world refuses to consider an overwhelming number of extremely inappropriate activities as harassment.
How do we decide the line between harmless and harmful flirtation? How do we differentiate romantic interest from intimidation and harassment? Can you express romantic feelings towards a colleague without violating their right to a safe working environment? Is 'sexy' really a compliment you give to your co-workers? The answers really aren't as complicated as they're made out to be. Sure, the relaxed "start-up" culture that even well-established organisations seem to be adopting, increasingly, may have pushed the boundaries for what is deemed acceptable, but what is appropriate is still mostly black and white and largely a matter of common sense.
Even if you did not intend to sexually harass someone with your advances, they may have felt harassed by you. When it comes to sexual harassment, their perception matters more than your intention.
If you're the kind who cannot determine when your actions are coming across as aggression, you're not very dateable to begin with. Learn what consent means --- NO means NO. Secondly, companies are doing little to educate their employees about the legal recourse available to them if they are harassed, and their role in fostering an inclusive, harassment-free work environment.
It is possible that even if you did not intend to sexually harass someone with your interest or advances, they may have felt harassed by you. And when it comes to sexual harassment, their perception matters more than your intent. Here's how you can approach a colleague you have developed feelings for without making them feel violated.
1. If you're in a position of power, try your hardest not to act on your feelings for someone who works under you. Shutting down a flirtatious boss can be difficult for a subordinate due to fear of offending them and hurting their career. Unwanted romantic or sexual interest from an authority figure is likely to be interpreted as inappropriate use of power at best, and sexual harassment at worst. There is literally no right way to pursue this and you're best advised to whine to a friend and forget about it. Or hope one of you leaves the organisation and you can then even consider thinking about pursuing it.
2. Flirting with a boss is never good idea either. If you make a senior employee uncomfortable, the balance of power makes it that much easier for them to get you reprimanded or even fired for sexual misconduct.
Shutting down a flirtatious boss can be difficult for a subordinate due to fear of offending them and hurting their career.
3. Every workplace romance carries immense potential for scandal and permanent damage to professional reputation, but flirting at the same level in the hierarchy is lesser than the other two evils; at least the power is somewhat evenly distributed, even if women are more likely to be judged, ridiculed and harassed if things go awry.
4. Don't confuse flirting with friendly banter, by calling it "harmless". Flirting, by definition, implies at least some degree of sexual awareness of the other person. If you're flirting with a colleague, acknowledge it for what it is and take responsibility for it.
5. If you like someone and would like to strike a conversation, do not go behind their backs to dig up their contact details from their official files. Ask them for their number instead of getting it from a colleague. Don't look up their address and then offer to drop them home because "you're going that way" anyway. It might not seem harmless to you, but this behaviour is stalking and can make them feel threatened — and rightly so. Please remember that in the real world, Christian Grey's obsessive tendencies would have earned him jail time.
If you like someone and would like to strike a conversation, do not go behind their backs to dig up their contact details from their official files.
6. Social media stalking is just as unwelcome and ill-advised. While the rules of engagement are blurred when it comes to befriending colleagues on Facebook or following them on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatever else, if they have ignored your request or even blocked you, back off immediately. And do not allude to it either, by making a snide, humourless "joke" about it later.
7. No matter how informal and "chilled out" your office environment and work culture is, it is best to err on the side of extreme caution while cracking sexually coloured jokes. It can make people around you feel uncomfortable and alienated. No, they are not "uptight" or "prudish" for not laughing uproariously at your innuendos or use of profanities. You're in office, not at a bar, and the language you use is open to reproach.
It is best to err on the side of extreme caution while making cracking sexually coloured jokes.
8. No matter how much you like someone, until you are completely sure that they are going to be appreciated, don't make sexually suggestive comments or refer to a colleague's appearance in a sexual manner. While going overboard with compliments is not very wise anyway, adding a sexual tint to them is an absolute no-no. There is no way to explain them away.
9. Unwarranted physical contact is never a grey area. No touching of arms, grazing any body part of your colleague lightly, impromptu hugs, leaning over their shoulder. Reading a person's body language when it comes to unwanted physical contact is not difficult at all. If they are shrinking away from you for any reason, treating it as a loud, clanging warning gong, back off instantly and apologise for unintentionally intruding into their space.
Let them know that even though you fancy them, it is perfectly okay for them to not feel the same way.
10. While letting a colleague know that you're interested in them, be direct, polite and unimposing. Let them know that even though you fancy them, it is perfectly okay for them to not feel the same way. A "Hi Priya, I find you very interesting and would like to get to know you better outside of work. Would you like to go out sometime? I hope you don't mind me saying this, and if you'd rather not, please feel free to say so. No awkwardness, I promise" clearly indicates interest, while giving 'Priya' ample space to decline your advances without feeling threatened or worried about consequences.
11. If your colleague doesn't return your interest in them, do not demand explanations or reasons from them. Rejection stings, but accosting them with questions to find out if they are married or dating someone else so you can appease your ego is never okay. They are not obliged to explain why they aren't attracted to you. Accept their refusal and let it go.
If you're approaching a colleague romantically without any idea about how they feel about you, it might be better to write to them.
12. If you're approaching a colleague romantically without any idea about how they feel about you, it might be better to write to them. Rejecting someone in person can be awkward and embarrassing, which might make the person being asked out agree to a date they never wanted to go on. It also helps you, in case things go horribly wrong and they report you for harassment. If you've been respectful, having incontrovertible proof of it can be the difference between a warning and a relieving letter from HR.
13. Do not "test the waters" by asking them out under false pretences. It is not fair to ask someone to join you for a friendly drink at the bar and then act like you're on a date. Don't pretend that you're going in a group and the others "cancelled at the last minute". They deserve to know that you harbour romantic interests and be able to decide if they want to be alone with you.
14. If you wield any kind of power or control over the way someone you are interested in discharges their professional duties, never use it to further your interest. For example, if you're tasked with creating employee schedules, don't abuse your power so you can keep them close to you or away from people you perceive to be competition, or stopping their transfer into a department that puts distance between you and them. No one likes to be manipulated into a romance. And even if you're not actively saying or doing anything to them directly, when you use any kind of clout to control their professional interaction or movement in any way, it is most definitely harassment.
Even if your colleague feels the same way and a romance is brewing between you two, be careful not to overstep their professional boundaries.
15. Even if your colleague feels the same way and a romance is brewing between you two, be careful not to overstep their professional boundaries. Respect their decision if they want to keep your relationship on the down low, even if it frustrates you to pretend that there's nothing going on with you. Women are often judged very harshly and face the bias of sleeping their way to success. It takes very little to spark rumours about women in their workplaces, especially if they are ambitious and doing well. Don't make it harder than it already is for your partner to navigate a workplace romance.
16. If your office romance ends badly and you're stuck working with your ex and seeing them daily at work, don't let your resentment and anger get the better of you. Treat them professionally and maintain your distance. Don't feed the office rumour mill by badmouthing them. Bitterness over a failed relationship will not protect you if they decide to charge you with sexual harassment and intimidation.