Sexual Harassment, Flirt, Casual Chat- A Difference?

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on August 24, 2016

What is considered casual conversation in the work environment vs. flirtation? Can what one person deem casual conversation, another deem as flirtation? What is considered casual conversation vs. flirtation vs. sexual harassment? Is flirtation different from sexual harassment or is it one in the same? A hot topic in the news as of late is the much talked about sexual harassment allegations made by Gretchen Carlson about Roger Ailes, and as of this week Andrea Tantaros asserting that FOX News has a “playboy atmosphere”. As a Psychotherapist who specializes in the relationship dynamics between people, I shall take a moment to use this subject as an opportunity for us all to reflect upon the relationship dynamics between men and women in the work force. My goal of this blog article is to allow us all to take a moment to consider how we each interact in the work force. Taking painful circumstances reported in the news, and using them as an opportunity to think, is of value. 

This blog offers no judgment about any of the aforementioned people being talked about in the news, nor offers commentary about the allegations nor the character of any of those parties mentioned above. As I have no knowledge of any of their circumstances. In all of my experiences having appeared on air on FOX News as a Psychotherapist Guest Expert, each of my experiences and the people I interacted with, all were positive and completely professional.

As you take a moment to reflect upon your own work experiences, and analyze your philosophy and opinion about men and women’s interaction in any work environment, here’s a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Can a woman say something to a man that a man cannot say to a woman? Or is there not a double standard when it comes to what is deemed crossing the line from casual conversation about non work related topics to sexual harassment?
  • Is there such a thing as healthy flirtation between men and women? Or is flirtation between men and women never healthy in the work environment? Is there such a thing as acceptable flirtation? Is flirtation between men and women okay in certain contexts but not in others?  (e.g., is it okay if both people are single vs. both people are married? Is it okay if both are in the same work position but if one is in a higher level position that can affect the professional career of the other, is flirtation not okay?). Or rather does the context not matter?
  • Are there things that one gender says to the same gender, the other gender cannot? For if the other gender says it, it may be deemed as sexual harassment rather than making a positive casual conversation fun comment about the other? For example, a woman says to another woman: “that color looks really great on you”. (In reference to a blue dress she’s wearing). Whereas if a man says that to a woman is it: a) a nice statement that is casual conversation not work related, b) flirtatious, c) sexual harassment? If what many have learned about sexual harassment is that it is about whether the recipient feels uncomfortable, then are any and all topics that are not specifically work related off limits between men and women because one never knows if the other will deem it as sexual harassment?
  • Can women be flirty with men and men would not deem it as sexual harassment whereas if men are flirty with women it is deemed as sexual harassment? For example, if the same statement coming from a man to a woman, a woman says to a man, would it be received differently? Is it okay that there’s a difference between men and women or do we have to experience things the same way?
  • What are a few examples of what you would deem casual conversation about not work related topics that are acceptable to you but perhaps not acceptable to another? Think of your own life experiences. Where does the line cross from casual conversation to flirtation to sexual harassment? Do you know what your line is as a recipient or as the giver?
  • Do you or have you communicated in the work place casually with the other gender? Do you feel that is okay to do or not? Do you or have you ever been flirtatious in the work environment? If you have been flirtatious do you feel it is okay or not okay to do? Have you said or done something that although you do not deem it as flirtatious and rather deem it as casual and nice conversation, might a recipient of your words and/or actions, or an observer, deem it as flirtatious? Have you said or done something that you deem sexually harassing? Have you said or done something that although you do not deem it as sexually harassing, might a recipient of your actions or an observer deem it as such?
  • Is there a difference between casual conversation between men and women versus flirtatious conversation and behavior?
  • Is there such a thing as healthy acceptable flirtation or is any flirtation not healthy nor acceptable?

In my work counseling couples, I have found it more common for women to report feeling disappointed and hurt by what they deem their mate’s flirtatious behavior in the work place. When in contrast their mate does not feel their behavior is flirty, or deems it as flirty but does not think it is unacceptable. With the onset of technological forms of communication outside of working hours (e.g., texts, emails, Facebook, etc.), there is much communication with one’s other gender colleagues. Often a mate will find these seemingly casual conversations not acceptable for they are outside of work hours. Though the question becomes, is the communications that are occurring outside of work hours okay if it was during work hours?

In the office, out of the office, during work hours, outside of work hours, face to face or via the use of technology as a vessel to communicate, what is deemed: casual conversation vs. flirtation vs. sexual harassment? Are the definitions different depending on who you ask? Consider your own life and how you interact with others and how you receive interactions from others, what is okay vs. not okay, what is healthy vs. not healthy, what is acceptable vs. unacceptable?

I hope this article offered you the opportunity to reflect upon your own life.

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