Ask ISM's Risk Manager

Vol. 6 No. 1

riskmanager eletter Vol5 No10 Q&A15

Q: Our school has been having some issues with “compliments” versus “harassment”. Some of our female faculty and staff members are not comfortable with comments directed towards them from one of our senior faculty members. I have talked to him, and he seems to believe he’s just being friendly and complimenting his colleagues. I’m not sure what more I can do at this point, but I know I must get this situation—situations, actually—under control. Any advice?

A: This is a great question, and a tricky one to navigate.

Before we begin to unravel the answer, let's keep in mind the definition of harassment. Legally speaking, sexual harassment is unwelcomed verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions.

As a general rule of thumb, "atta boy" sorts of compliments are important feedback mechanisms in the workplace, especially from one's supervisor, and should be encouraged; they just need to be appropriate. As such, compliments should be work-focused, centered on positive feedback on one’s work performance, and never centered around one's gender or appearance.

For example, let's say a supervisor wants to praise two women who just completed a project. "You two did a great job" is fine; "You girls did a great job" – less appropriate.

The line can definitely blur on occasion, but there's still a discernable level of appropriateness that all employees should be aware of. For instance, if someone of the opposite gender clearly “dressed up” for the day, you could probably say something like “You look very nice today” without any problems. “Wow, you look really hot today“ is most assuredly not OK.

Now that we've illustrated both acceptable and unacceptable "compliments," let's get back to your primary question: How to address the situation(s). As acting HR Manager, you must remain open to both parties involved in the situation. Ask the people involved for their perspectives of the transpired events. Then, ask each of them how they would like these comments to be delivered (if at all). This process will help you clarify going-forward behavior, and give you something to refer back to if behaviors do not change.

I also recommend reminding your senior faculty member to remember it’s not just the intent of his comments that matter, but also how it is received. He needs to be open and sensitive to how his comments are affecting his colleagues, even if it didn't intend for his statements to be taken sexually or aggressively.

I should also remind you that during these conversations, you should have your school’s policies on sexual harassment handy to review with each party. These policies need to be part of your employee and student handbooks. If you don’t have updated handbooks with clear policies, you’ll want to add that project to the top of your to-do list.

For more on ISM's take on sexual misconduct on school grounds, see parts 1, 2, and 3 of our recent series on the topic.

Have your questions answered! Send your issue to ISM's Risk Management Expert.

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