You may love your job and the colleagues you work with, but platonic is the way to go in the office this February.
Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and with it come the kinds of overtures and romantic gestures that can turn a sweet day into an awkward or even a hostile experience. So you receive a love note at work on Valentine’s day. Is it a romantic gesture or sexual harassment? It may help to recall that harassment is when someone behaves in a way which makes you feel distressed, humiliated or threatened.
It depends on the context. If you’re friends with someone already, a flirty note might seem fine (though it would be better to keep these outside the office), while getting one from your boss or someone you don’t know might feel strange or creepy. If you’re uncomfortable but can’t quite place why, try breaking the question into smaller pieces.
Who’s the sender?
Is it an old friend, a new flame, your boss who’s married and has a reputation for hitting on his subordinates? It’s possible for colleagues to harass you as well as superiors, but especially if someone is using their power over you to make you “be a good sport” about a level of flirtiness that makes you uncomfortable, that could be sexual harassment.
What’s the content?
Does the note overstep normal office boundaries – calling you “babe” or “hot” or making comments about your sexy clothes? That’s an indicator a legal line may have been crossed. But even softer, romantic language can constitute harassment when taken in context with other messages delivered…
What‘s the form?
Is it written on special paper—a kind that singles you out as exclusive? Being favored in this way may feel nice in some contexts, but it can also feel like targeting or entrapment.
How many recipients?
If your love note landed in your inbox or in-tray and no one else’s, it could signal the kind of unwelcome attention that people don’t have to put up with at work. If the same note has gone to the whole office, it’s less likely to be a problem. But if it makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable due to sexually charged undertones, it IS a problem.
Was it face-to-face, in front of other employees to keep the gesture open and friendly? Or was it secret, with overtones of intimacy? That’s not OK. This analysis applies to other “messages” as well—a friendly shoulder pat can become uncomfortable or harassing when done in private, or with an inappropriate demeanour, or an extra long squeeze.
Is this one of many letters or gestures?
When a gesture makes you feel uncomfortable, but you’re not sure it’s crossed the line to “harassment”, don’t just dismiss it. People don’t want to see this kind of trouble in their workplace and often deny or minimize it. Look at the bigger picture to get your bearings. It’s easy to dismiss individual actions as flukes or odd behaviour. But how many times have you had to do that already? Your Valentine’s Day note might be only the latest in a string of unwelcome overtures. It’s definitely a red flag if your harasser is initiating physical contact that you don’t want, like brushing up against you, feeling your hair, or more overt sexual gestures like grabbing your behind. Sexualized language is also a red flag, like calling you “babe” or “sexy” or saying you would look better in a short skirt. Put your Valentine’s note in context. Does it feel like one more step in a campaign to get close to you that makes you uncomfortable? Do you just want it to stop? You shouldn’t have to put up with that at work.
No single factor makes that love note harassing. It’s about how all the factors combine and make you feel in your workplace; how the messages are received by you.
So what do you do if you get a message you think might be harassing? First, don’t throw it away. File it – it could come in handy. You might want to talk to your HR manager, and it’s always good to have proof to back up what concerns you. And no one is allowed to retaliate against you for making this kind of complaint.
But, unfortunately, harassment and retaliation still do happen. The good thing is that the law is on your side. If it comes to that, you can get redress in a grievance or a tribunal.
So have fun on Valentine’s Day, and remember — sexual harassment is very rarely as overt or as blatant as physical harassment. It comes in a flurry of one-off, little things like “notes”— gestures, behavior, attitudes, and language creating a discomfort that is difficult to name.