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Friendly Behavior: Where’s the Line?

Some claims of sexual harassment arise from behavior that was intended to be friendly:

  • Hugging (greeting, congratulatory, in sympathy or consolation)
  • Pet names or terms of endearment
  • Compliments, especially on physical appearance or dress
  • Discussing personal issues, such as dating or divorce

Whether these behaviors are truly friendly or, conversely, contribute to a hostile workplace, can vary greatly depending on the employees involved. If the behaviors are welcomed and no party feels mistreated or uncomfortable, then there’s no reason not to permit friendly behaviors like these in the workplace.

Communication and company policy are the keys to sorting out these issues. Employees, especially supervisory employees interacting with subordinates, need to be aware how these friendly gestures may be taken. Employees need to communicate their discomfort to appropriate channels (such as a supervisor or HR), and supervisors should be vigilant for any indications that friendly behavior is unwanted.

Supervisors, in general, should be more cautious in their expression of friendly behavior because of the power that they hold over employees and the pressure that employees may feel to not report the issue for fear of retaliation.

If the friendly behavior persists even after an employee has been told that the behavior is unwelcome, it can certainly contribute to a hostile workplace and lead to claims of sexual harassment.