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What Place Does Flirting Have in the Workplace?

How to achieve healthier work environments and necessary boundaries post-#metoo


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I believe in men and women leading together – Everything is better when we do. That said, if you’re a woman you probably have a #metoo story of some kind or another. Me too. That fact complicates things. My fear is if we don’t keep our heads and resolve workplace harassment issues together, it will be women who become the losers in companies across the country. If men, who still hold most of the power, are uncomfortable, women risk being cut out of important interactions and opportunities for promotion. That’s not the outcome we want.

My solution is to provide both men and women with tools that minimize and hopefully eliminate the destructive polarity currently disturbing our workplace peace, safety and productivity. Let’s collaborate in defining what will help us all make better choices and create healthier work environments. I want to be clear that I’m not talking about sexual assault, which is a separate issue and a horrific crime. I’m advocating for the natural sexuality that happens in encounters between human beings.

You can’t remove sexuality from the workplace, and why would anyone want to try? Natural flirtation is a part of life and done with the right intention and respect, a fun way to appreciate both the differences and commonalities between people. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand the boundaries because what is innocent flirtation to one person can be harassment to another. Every company should take care to provide guidelines for culturally appropriate words and behaviors that inspire workplaces where everyone feels safe.

SETTING THE STAGE BY FLIRTING

Although it’s impossible to define flirting from a legal perspective, it’s often lumped into general “harassment” considerations, adding to the confusion, fear and uncertainty around interactions between men and women. Companies deal with it all in much the same way, by requiring ever more sexual harassment training – mainly focused on avoiding legal liabilities – training that the EEOC says fails as a prevention tool. This leaves men wondering whether they can give a woman a holiday hug or tell them they look nice, and women wondering how they should respond if men do either.

Harassment is about power and entitlement. Flirting is not about either, nor is it about objectifying, demeaning or cat calling. It’s a well-intentioned way of subtly expressing appreciation or interest by both men and women.

My belief is that grown men understand the difference between flirting and harassment, and I would guess the majority of them are probably insulted by the implication they don’t. Even with the right intention, men sometimes can’t figure out what a woman communicates in response to their overtures. Not having the answer can turn flirting into perceived harassment.

And women?

I believe that we’ve developed a sixth sense that almost always tells us whether a man’s overtures are “nice” or their intentions are nefarious (although our sixth sense is sometimes outweighed by what we want to hear.) They’re pretty accurate at reading nonverbals.

GUIDELINES TO AVOID POLARITY

Women and men both expect equality, respect and fairness at work. Things like telling or laughing at off-color jokes and over-imbibing at company parties are never appropriate and that should be clearly reflected in the culture. We have processes in place to handle many of these often sexually infused types of behaviors, from being boorish to harassment or assault. But our processes are imperfect.

Every company should have guidelines in place to protect women and men from every sort of abuse, and we want to make sure that men are heard as well. After all, what if it were your son, husband or brother who was accused? Everyone should have equal opportunity to defend themselves.

Empowering your people with some appropriate language and behaviors helps them use their heads to interact without being overly aggressive or overly sensitive. Add these suggestions and others you may come up with to your handbook to help employees avoid uncomfortable situations:

  • If you’re in a position of authority over someone, flirting is never appropriate in the workplace.
  • Make sure your words and actions are welcome. Go the extra mile to reassure the other person of your intentions—and make sure you, yourself, understand your true intentions.
  • If the other person makes it clear that they do not appreciate what you are doing or saying, stop it.
  • If you are reaching out, make sure that your words or actions are appropriate to the place and situation.
  • Don’t pin up sexual or other inappropriate materials in your office, cube, or anywhere else.
  • Don’t use sexually oriented or demeaning language to comment about a person’s appearance.
  • Use your intuition and empathy to determine whether the other person feels safe and comfortable with you.
  • Adhere to the established dress code for the office and company events.
  • Treat everyone with the same respect and offer equal opportunity to men and women.
  • Make sure you understand what is and isn’t acceptable in your guidelines and culture, and if you’re not certain, ask.
  • And for goodness sake, STOP going to anyone’s hotel room if you are unsure of the intention.

The National Women’s Law Center  is an excellent resource for additional information, suggestions, and videos you’ll find useful in defining and managing sexual harassment policies for your workplace.

I’ve been in the business world since I was 14, working for or with some powerful men and women. What I’ve realized is that our sexuality reflects a kind of tension in virtually every encounter between men and women and is very natural. We should embrace it in productive and joyful ways. We can’t erase what has happened to women, and some men. And we can’t promise that those kinds of things won’t ever happen again. Rather than excusing bad behavior or hiding it under the rug, what leaders can do is create an environment where everyone’s safety is assured, their full potential is celebrated, and all are focused on creating mutual success based on strong working relationships..

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is CEO of TalenTrust. Her first book, Solve the People Puzzle; How High-Growth Companies Attract and Retain Top Talent, debuted in February 2016. Her firm has achieved several awards, including recognition from Inc.5000 in 2015 and 2016. She speaks frequently and advises CEOs on trends in talent and how to be strategic in developing a people strategy. Kathleen has served on several nonprofit boards including Colorado Companies to Watch and ACG-Denver. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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