Untouchables: Claim Your Safe Space At Work

Unwanted touching at work is not cool.

Unwanted touching at work is not cool.

Can’t touch this.

The recent uproar surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential hopeful whose spokesperson Bill Russo rebuked allegations about “supposedly crossing a line between affectionate or supportive behavior with women to something inappropriate,” calls to the forefront the need to make those lines very clear.

Read more in Take The Lead on harassment.

As women in the workplace, it is crucial to make boundaries of acceptability widely visible and to hold everyone accountable.

The recent uproar surrounding former Vice President @JoeBiden calls to the forefront the need to make the lines between supportive behavior with women and something inappropriate very clear.

Biden later issued a statement: “Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it.”

This is by no means isolated, is not partisan, and of course, not relegated to the political sphere.

Recently British retailer “Ted Baker’s CEO and founder Ray Kelvin has resigned following allegations of misconduct, including “forced hugging,” Refinery 29 reports.

“Kelvin had been on a voluntary leave of absence since December, when the allegations emerged, and in a new statement said that while the company had been his “life and soul” it was now “the right thing to do is to step away,” the BBC reported.

Incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior are by no means isolated, are not partisan, and of course, not relegated to the political sphere.

According to Refinery 29, “Another staff member claimed they’d been ‘warned by some of the senior staff that Kelvin was a character and could be inappropriate, and just to go along with it.’ They said they’d noticed that he would ‘go in for a hug regardless of any apparent desire from those he was hugging,’ and that hugs would last between 10 and 40 seconds, and would often involve him whispering, kissing necks or massaging people’s ears. ‘This would happen every day if he was in a good mood.’”

Read more in Take The Lead on harassment at work.

Minor transgressions, quirks, chummy behaviors and more cannot be dismissed by women–and men—as an acceptable part of the workplace culture. Most of these gestures are signals of power “over” someone, and an expression of hierarchy.

Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, says this abusive manifestation of power, is necessary for women in leadership to shift from the mindset of “power over” someone or something to the “power to” accomplish goals.

Read more from Gloria Feldt on men affecting change.

According to the Washington Post,“Now that we’ve had something of an awakening about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the American workplace, the conversation is shifting to what to do about it. In many workplaces, the answer seems to be that we need mandatory training and clearer policies.”

Earlier this year, in Minnesota, the assembly passed a “bill that essentially returns the sexual harassment standards in the Minnesota Human Rights Act to what they were immediately after the Legislature enacted the law in the 1980s, before the state’s courts raised the threshold. She said ‘severe or pervasive’ is such a difficult test that victims of unwanted kissing, unwanted touching and sexual comments don’t get to have their day in court, and that lawyers often dissuade their clients from even trying,” reports TwinCities.

I can relate. Since I started working at 16, I have had older male higher-ups at workplaces touch my shoulder, put an arm around my waist, hold an elbow, put a hand on my back, and one even put his hand on my knee sitting next to each other at a conference.

This is not unusual. But these acts need to be met with policy, not dismissed as someone’s style, a generational habit or friendly behavior. Human resources and administration can make clear policies—and assure that reporting violations of these policies is safe to do—in order to create a safe culture where every employee feels lines wrote be crossed.

“Employers need to have an appropriate sexual harassment policy in place, to make sure staff are trained on how to identify and react to sexual harassment, have an internal procedure for dealing with harassment complaints and ensure they take appropriate action if sexual harassment occurs,” writes Jessica Laina in Smart Company.

Read more in Take The Lead on sexism and sexual harassment.

So what can you do if you encounter these acts in the workplace that make you uncomfortable?

Speak up. In the moment, express that you are not amused and ask the person to stop. Tell a colleague or an immediate supervisor. Also if you observe it happening to a colleague speak up that the behavior is  not appropriate for the workplace.

Document. Write down the date, time, place of the instance and keep records. “If the problem can’t be resolved informally, you have the right to make a written complaint, known as a grievance, about any problems you have at work, including problem hugging. Your employer then has a duty to investigate that complaint,” according to the BBC.

Watch for cues, be respectful. “In general, you can’t go wrong by limiting your physical interaction to a firm handshake. There are plenty of safe alternatives to making a warm connection: a genuine smile, verbal praise, putting a compliment in writing or announcing a successful achievement at the next staff meeting. Any of these substitutes will keep you out of hot water at the office,” Diane Gottsman writes in Huffington Post.

Sexual harassment is against the law. If you have done all of the above, acted appropriately yourself and still have no relief from being touched against your will—whatever the motivation—you do have legal recourse. Hugging can be considered sexual harassment.“What we’re suggesting that companies do is have open discussions within the organizations to clarify what their rules are,” said Pat Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute. “I think it needs to be individual and have those rules made clear,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

What can you do if you encounter unwanted touchiness in the workplace that makes you uncomfortable? Speak up, document, watch for cues, be respectful, and remember that the law is on your side. #ChangeTheWorkplace

If you are in doubt about how to react to someone’s touchiness at work, Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Professor Emerita at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and an expert in workplace politics, persuasion, and negotiation, writes in Harvard Business Review, that she has created a rubric.

Reardon developed the “Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) to help people define and differentiate among types of gender-based offense. The author of The Secret HandshakeIt’s All Politics, and Comebacks at Work, writes, “The SSMW was derived from my interviews and interactions with hundreds of women in a wide variety of fields. It is intended as a blueprint for men, women and organizations to use in becoming familiar with levels of offense that can harm work relationships and create or perpetuate hostile work environments.”

She adds, “Most important, the SSMW provides a means of talking about sexual misconduct — a way to halt backlash against women by formulating solutions. It also helps women decide when and how to respond to behaviors they see as offensive whether minor or extreme.”

With these guidelines and strategies for recourse, you can hopefully have a safer space to work. And when in doubt, you can always remind everyone to do what your mother said, “Keep your hands to yourself.”

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About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com