Harassment Files: The Thin Line


photo: courtesy of www.clipartbest.com

photo: courtesy of http://www.clipartbest.com

A while back, I heard myself say to someone “you just don’t barge into someone else’s personal space. It’s rude!” -and at that very moment, it struck me how uncomfortable and threatening it could get to have a stranger push up so close to you that you are able to smell their breath.

Not everyone understands ‘boundaries’ or the implication of intruding on another’s personal space. In the workplace, circumstances are slightly different, considering an existing level of familiarity between colleagues.

While familiarity ensures you don’t get an impulsive punch in the nose, it doesn’t protect you from harassment charges that may occur when one has consistently crossed boundary lines and out-rightly intruded on another’s personal space.

However, this is a particularly dicey subject especially because, of the subjectivity involved. That is; what constitutes an infringement differs considerably from one person to another. The watchwords here are #caution and #consideration.

Consequently, there’s now need to be more aware of how we come across as well as the possible impact of our actions on others. The need to factor in cultural differences, varying value systems and diverse personal ideologies have become crucial. For example, office huggers or those who find it hard speaking without touching others will now need to learn appropriate conduct while in another’s space.

Another incident that may very well be misunderstood and perhaps find its way to the harassment desk is the issue of ‘unwanted attention at work’. There’s nothing as shocking as a harassment complaint coming from a colleague who you thought enjoyed your company or flirtatious remarks. Such things as unsolicited pats on the back, unconsented arm across shoulders, whispering into ears, illicit conversations, double handed handshakes, unofficial phone calls etc… could easily be misunderstood.

The organization has an important role to play. As some of these issues can be highly subjective, the organization can instill basic policies that neutralize cultural differences in interpretation of ‘acceptable behavior’. A culture that embraces diversity should be encouraged. The induction process may also be designed to include issues around the peculiarities of cultural diversity. In addition, channels should be put in place for reporting harassment cases and punishing offenders accordingly. Failure of the organization to act may make it culpable and prone to receiving a harassment suit itself.

In conclusion, we all have varying levels of tolerance for physical contact. Thus, it behoves everyone to understand boundaries and stay within those lines. Be on the safe side. Keep it professional at work or at the very least, ensure you pick up on body languages. As often as is required, clear the air or render an apology.


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