Valentine's is here — can you ensure flirting or romances at the office don't cross any lines?
The bouquet of flowers and box of chocolates arriving at the office today could well be Valentine’s day gifts between co-workers. With studies showing that casual flirting can be a ‘beneficial’ stress-reliever, how should HR respond to tricky co-worker relationships?
The line between harmless flirting and harassment may be unclear at times. And if an office romance is in the books, are leaders responsible to lay down official ground rules?
HRD investigates and finds out how leaders can approach such sensitive situations.
Friendly flirting or harassment?
Firstly, let’s note that wherever you are, harmless flirting between consensual parties is not considered sexual harassment.
A recent study by Washington State University (WSU) took it further by demonstrating that flirting, such as light-hearted banter, can help relieve stress in workers. Findings showed that “when flirtation is enjoyed” it offers benefits like making people feel good about themselves, in turn shielding them from negative feelings of stress.
The researchers analysed non-harassing social sexual behaviour among co-workers, such as telling jokes and making innuendos that are sexual in nature. They also looked at what could be considered flirtatious behaviour, such as making coy glances at colleagues or complimenting others on their physical appearance.
“Even when our study participants disliked the behaviour, it still didn’t reach the threshold of sexual harassment,” said Leah Sheppard, assistant professor at WSU and one of the study’s authors.
“It didn’t produce higher levels of stress, so it is a very different conceptual space.”
A more notable finding was this: the study showed that workers and supervisors have different views on flirtation in the office. While employees felt more positively about such behaviour, bosses weren’t as thrilled about the idea.
And rightly so, as the line between consensual and non-consensual can be pretty thin.
As stated by advocates in Singapore, Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), harmless flirting can easily turn into harassment once “the feelings are no longer mutual”.
The line is crossed when one party persists even though the other party makes it clear that they’re no longer interested.
AWARE also stated that workplace sexual harassment is not limited to the confines of an office space. Misconduct can be called out as long as it’s during a work-related activity, such as after-work activities or on overseas business trips.
What harassment can look like
Misconduct can be difficult to point out as individuals may interpret actions or exchanges differently. For instance, while the WSU researchers considered jokes, innuendos and coy glances as ‘non-harassing social sexual behaviour’, AWARE took a more serious stance.
Additionally, physical harassment is more clearly identifiable, versus verbal or visual ones, as AWARE pointed out. Some examples cited:
1. Verbal harassment
- Cat calls, kissing sounds, howling, whistling, smacking lips
- Unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions
- Turning work discussions into sexual topics
- Sexual innuendos or stories
- Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences or history
- Sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy or looks
- Telling lies or spreading rumours about a person’s sex life
2. Visual harassment
- Obscene or unwanted sexual looks or gestures
- Unwanted letters, calls, emails and texts of a sexual nature
AWARE reiterated that they’re only considered harassment when they’re unwanted attention that causes individuals to feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
To be fair, all of the above can become consensual if the flirting evolves into an office romance — what then? It’s an age-old sensitive subject for HR and not all workplace policies are so strict about it, though some are:
- McDonald's sacks CEO over relationship with employee
- BlackRock's HR chief fired over office scandal
- Intel CEO quits over relationship with employee
“Workplace relationships have become an especially timely issue in the #MeToo era, with employees and employers collectively asking: Are workplace relationships ever acceptable? And if so, what rules should govern them?” said an industry leader.
And they’re more common than you’d think. In a recent survey by ADP Canada, the majority of working professionals (83%) find nothing wrong with office romances. They are open to the idea and aren’t concerned when they learn co-workers are romantically involved.
Interestingly, almost half (45%) who have been romantically involved with a co-worker have kept it a secret from at least one person, while more than a quarter (27%) have kept it hush-hush altogether.
HR is often among the last to know since employees tend to hide office romance from HR (37%) and management (40%).
“There is no point denying it, romance can blossom in the workplace,” said the industry leader. “Co-workers routinely spend more time together than they might spend with friends or family.
“The shared experience of working together — delivering projects, overcoming obstacles and managing the highs and lows of work — can develop strong emotional bonds between colleagues. It’s only natural that it can be the catalyst for romance.”
HR’s role in stamping out harassment
If casual flirting and office romances are unavoidable, how can HR ensure that workplaces remain safe? The industry leader said that your topmost priority is to have a “current and enforceable” sexual harassment policy.
“The existence and enforcement of a sexual harassment policy isn’t contingent on the prospect of workplace romance,” she said.
“Sexual harassment policies are an essential feature of your standard suite of HR policies and procedures that clearly define the standards of acceptable workplace behaviour.”
Another leader chimed in that the next step is to build a culture of trust, where employees feel safe to speak up and report misconduct.
HR should communicate that employees have several options – either talk to HR, managers or supervisors, or go through a confidential hotline.
“Having a strong code of conduct and an independent HR hotline available to team members can help alert the company to and reduce the possibility of inappropriate or illegal activity,” she said.
“A speak-out or HR hotline provides a confidential way for team members to report issues to management without the fear of retaliation.”
After which, demonstrate that the organisation can be depended on through a clear follow-up process.
“It is always better to have a culture where an organisation investigates all allegations of misconduct,” she said. “Without doing this organisations risk team members not coming forward when they see offside behaviour because they don’t think the company will do anything.
“This attitude is even more pervasive in organisations where team members fear reprisal by other team members or the organisation itself.”