Avoiding Harassment at Work: How to Pay a Compliment

Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose…

With the sudden shattering of many high-profile men’s reputations amid allegations of sexual harassment, we as a nation are currently acutely aware of anything smacking of impropriety in the workplace.

Perhaps the most prominent figure to fall from grace was movie mogul Weinstein, against whom allegations range from appearing nearly or fully naked in front of unsuspecting women to rape (Weinstein has denied accusations of non-consensual acts). But not every situation is as blatant. Office interactions can be full of gray areas — dealings that seem friendly to some take on the specter of harassment to others.

But the growth of the #metoo movement doesn’t mean we should avoid interactions with coworkers or give up on paying genuine comments in the workplace. Rather, it’s a good opportunity to reevaluate what we say and our motivations for saying it.

Here are some of our Frequently Asked Questions about compliments in the workplace:

This is tricky territory. How do I know the line between what a co-worker will perceive as a compliment versus harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct that would be perceived by a reasonable person as offensive. It can be one big instance or multiple smaller instances that add up over time, creating a hostile or offensive work environment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In general, it can be helpful to consider whether you would interact similarly with someone of the same gender, and how you would feel if someone made a similar comment to you, according to sources in the Chicago Tribune. Would you say the same thing to someone to whom you are close? Also, pay attention to how the person reacts. If he or she seems nervous, unsure or uncomfortable, it’s probably best to avoid that topic.

Understand that while you may know your intentions — perhaps a joke — other people don’t. And ultimately, what’s important is their perception, not your intentions. The Good Men Project recommends a little introspection — if you truly want to make someone feel good and know you appreciate him or her, you are paying a compliment.

What topics should I avoid?

In general, steer clear of superficial topics such as:

  • Body
  • Weight
  • Clothing
  • Anything appearance-related, really
  • Anything that would highlight a power difference or perceived superficial way they could gain your favor

For example, saying “I like your dress,” is very different from, “Your waist looks great in that dress.” And comments such as, “Have you lost weight?” easily can be misinterpreted. It’s really as simple as not being creepy.

What topics generally are safe?

In the workplace, people want to be appreciated for their contributions. Rather than paying compliments for superficial things, focus on professional achievements, hard work or intelligence.

Genuine, polite compliments are essential at work — they encourage employees to continue positive actions and they improve morale. Inc. offers these suggestions of compliments that reinforce desired behaviors:

  • You made my job easier.
  • You made the company money.
  • You saved the company money.
  • You taught coworkers something valuable.
  • You improved the workplace culture.
  • You acted like an owner.
  • You exceeded expectations.
  • You saved the day.
  • You avoided a disaster.

What if I make a mistake?

Most people recognize and appreciate a genuine compliment, even if it’s awkwardly given. You can clarify in the moment if you see your words may have been misconstrued.

If you are accused of sexual harassment, the experts in the Chicago Tribune article say, contrition is a better response than retaliation, but you should leave it up to the victim how to proceed. Instead of rushing to apologize, wait until you are asked to speak with your accuser.

Want advice about encouraging positive interactions at your company? Contact People People — we’ll give you advice on this hot topic that’s specific to your workplace.  And, if your workplace needs a little training, we’d be happy to assist.  Find more information here.