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Sexual Bantering in the Office

Blurred behavioral boundary lines can lead to bad feelings in the office.

Context is critical in human communications. The meanings of “Let’s eat Grandma” and Let’s eat, Grandma” are changed by one tiny little curved mark. We speak in metaphors all the time: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” The rise in our inflection at the end of a sentence can turn it into a question, a fear, a hope, disgust, happiness, or an angry conclusion.

Language is best when it’s clear and understandable by the speaker and the listener. Communication breakdowns happen when people make assumptions. Some of this is based on cultural differences, some on geographical differences, some on age differences, and some on gender differences. The passage of time, shifting cultural beliefs, and changing moralities alter our definition of words dramatically. The word “gay” meant something much different in 1914. Your grandparents probably don’t know (or care) what a “selfie” is, since they probably don’t take them when they’re on “vacay.”

Certain office situations can lead to big misunderstandings about word choices, especially in written communications. On paper and on the screen, people can misread your text, instant message, or e-mail, turning what seems like a normal exchange into an immediate conflict. An e-mail from your boss that says, “Meet me in my office on Monday at 8:15,” might mean, “Let’s talk about the new marketing plan,” but is read as, “I’m going to fire you,” by a nervous employee.

And in any office where adults of various ages and both genders work, it’s easy to misinterpret what appear to be mixed messages about jokes, comments, physical contact, proximity, attraction, attractiveness, or even the kindness of a compliment that sounds great coming from someone you like and creepy from someone you don’t.

A classic Saturday Night Live skit tells this tale well and sharply. Using a motif of a black and white 1960s-style training film, we see a nerdy office worker, played with mousy skill by Fred Armisen, trying to have a conversation with his office mates, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. His attempt to ask Amy to lunch causes her to lunge for her phone to call HR and the attorneys. He simply says hello to Tina and she calls to have the office security guard haul him away. The gag, of course, is when strapping New England Patriots QB Tom Brady shows up to ask Amy out to lunch (sporting his rugged looks and dimpled chin) and later asks Tina out (this time wearing a shirt, tie, black socks, dress shoes, white underwear briefs, and no pants), they both immediately accept. The on-screen punchline is, “If you want to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit, Be Handsome, Be Attractive, and Don’t Be Unattractive.”

This “training film” got a big audience laugh and is a favorite online video. The exaggeration in the sketch points to a larger workplace issue: sexually-oriented language or behaviors can be subject to contextual interpretation. What is meant as a joke is not always taken that way. One employee’s “harmless fun” is another employee’s insult. This leads to a number of hard questions:

1). When is flirting at work not okay? (When either party says stop or other people are offended when it happens around them.)
2). Should office supervisors have the right to know about co-workers dating each other? (Only if it impacts the business in a negative way, violates policy, or involves a coercive relationship.)
3). Why do people put their personal lives, reputations, and careers at risk by “sport-dating” where they work? (Because they can be stupid and don’t realize breaking up means you still have to see that person every day.)
4). Can a supervisor be sexually harassed by a subordinate, who wants to initiate a sexual relationship? (Yes. Rent the 1994 Michael Douglas – Demi Moore film “Disclosure” on Netflix.)
5). If a woman has a series of conversations where she uses highly-sexualized language, can a man reciprocate? (It’s not wise. These conversational freedoms change day-by-day. Nod politely, don’t add to it, and get back to work. Plus, plus ask her to stop if it continues and you’re uncomfortable.)
6). If an employee gives you a compliment about your body, your perfume or cologne, or how you look, should you say similar things about that person? (See #5 above, plus ask them to stop if it continues and you’re uncomfortable.)
7). If a woman works with men who tell dirty jokes and she joins in on the laughter, does that mean she is saying it’s okay to continue doing this? (No. Some people – men and women – laugh at dirty jokes to be polite, even though it embarrasses them. Don’t tell dirty jokes to people who you don’t know well enough to do so.)
8). If an openly-gay employee continually discusses his or her sex life, or teases other straight employees in a sexual but joking way, is that sexual harassment? (It could be. Gay or straight, don’t make sexualized comments to or about others. It’s not about sexual orientation; it’s about having boundaries and respecting other people.)
9). If a supervisor has a consensual sexual relationship with an employee who works at the same company but does not work for him or her directly, is that still a violation of company policy? (It could be, depending on company policy. Often, these relationships deteriorate into unfair advantage, coercion, undue power and control, or having leverage over one person or others. When the relationship ends, different truths come out.)
10). If people flirt, date, or use Public Displays of Affection at work, and it doesn’t bother them, should other people have the right to complain? (Yes, if it interferes with their work. This isn’t high school. Keep your personal life separate.)

Context is critical and people in office situations need to create and follow better boundaries, adhere to the law, and know their company polices, regardless of what other employees are saying or doing. You are in charge of you.

In our allegedly enlightened era of the New Workplace, where work lives and personal lives get mixed together, perhaps an apt metaphor applies: “As the driver of your career, there are two pedals you control: the gas and the brake. These days, it’s best to keep your foot on or near the brakes. Just because you think you can say it or do it, doesn’t mean you can or should. Don’t let other people set your moral and ethical boundaries for you. What you think is acceptable is not always so for the other person. When asked by HR or the company attorneys, their memories will be fuzzy about giving you permission to do or say what you originally thought was okay.”

One tool for success at work when it comes to communications and behavior, is your ability to give your co-workers direct, non-personal, feedback. Direct means tell them what you need or want, in terms of communication, touching, hugging, jokes, language, flirting, or being asked out. Non-personal means be polite and don’t use demeaning language, name-calling, or attacks. And feedback is a different phrase than criticism. Feedback tends to be more semantically positive and less harsh, as in, “Could I please ask you to not do or say this around me…?”

We all have no desire to work in a place where people are afraid to smile at each other, joke about life’s little misfortunes, compliment each other on their birthdays, or hug them goodbye when they retire. But, we should all expect equal, respectful treatment by bosses and co-workers.

Feet on brakes, ears open, mouth closed, except when necessary to set boundaries, and hands and feet inside the compartment at all times.

Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer. He is board certified in HR, security, and coaching. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessments, and school and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and police subjects. He can be reached at or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht