People & Human Resources

Are you acting appropriately towards colleagues? Now’s the time to review your behaviour

Eve Ash /

Is everyone in the workplace completely off-limits when it comes to touch? What about conservative body language – can it be construed as stand-offishness? 

What is allowed to happen when the team meets for a beer on a Friday evening, or lets their hair down at the end of year bash? Don’t many couples first encounter each other in workplace settings? Yes they do, but doing things like touching other staff at work may get you into a lot of trouble. 

True case study from a colleague

Will” a high profile, well-heeled, well-connected manager, had an unsettling habit of massaging people’s shoulders during meetings.  He did it to everyone, female and male, overlaying his boardroom trick with a soothing, disarming manner. It was supposedly harmless, but everyone was always slightly uncomfortable. Few would speak up and ask him to stop; most laughed nervously and tried to shrug it off as “good old Will”. He was remarkably unconcerned with their reactions. My colleague attributed Will’s schtick to his “dirty old man-ism”; today, it can be more accurately characterised as his sense of power and entitlement (not to mention manipulative tendencies).

Surely this is not still happening, given the continual #metoo exposure describing inappropriate behaviours since the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the tsunami of cases emerging every day!

I spoke on Workplace boundaries and #metoo on ABC Overnights talk-back radio recently. 

It was amazing to hear what people called in to say, but overall it is clear it’s clear that these kind of situations still cause issues at work. 

Maintain a professional approach to all relationships at work

No matter what your occupation, the office is not Married at First Sight. You won’t go far winking at the attractive new boss, even if s/he winks back. Shaking hands is fine, but that’s pretty much it. “Keep yo’ hands to yourself” as the song goes, for the rest of the time, and rein in your impulse to be chummy.

That goes for sharing intimate photos, saucy stories, aggressive or sexual body language, and certainly malicious or untruthful gossip. Even swearing can make some people feel uncomfortable. Abusing power in any way is simply unprofessional, and could cause legal issues. 

Censor yourself with new people at work

A few weeks into a friend’s new job, she made the “mistake” of smiling at an older colleague. The next thing she knew, he’d moseyed up to her desk, sat on its corner without being invited, and leaning towards her, said “Has anybody here asked you out for coffee?” 

My friend blushed (angry) purple, gave him a freezing response and for weeks after, whenever she saw him, he repaid her with a scowl. What the chap didn’t seem to realise was the importance of “censoring” oneself with new people. He mistook a pleasant smile for an invitation, and worse, blundered into her personal space. Shocking assumption. Similarly, his unguarded behaviour made it awkward for her to deal with him thereafter on a professional basis. 

But what happens when you are attracted to a colleague, and it seems to be mutual? While we can’t necessarily ignore attraction and its undercurrents, we can choose to park it – firmly, beyond the office realm.

Discuss appropriate behaviours for the team

It’s important that workplaces have clear policies about behaviours that everyone agrees / signs up to. This could be a collaborative exercise, which also explores other cultures’ views about what is and isn’t acceptable (within reason).

Discuss what makes people uncomfortable, ensure it’s widely understood, and aim for a happy medium. Living in Australia where women can show bare knees at work doesn’t necessarily give the signal for mass displays of cleavage, nor wearing tiny skirts to the office. Keep certain clothes for socialising, clubbing or whatever you get up to after hours. 

Ask before assuming anything is ok

There used to be jokes about some industries and workplaces being “marriage marts”. 

Does anybody remember Jack Lemmon’s “Daphne” in “Some Like it Hot”? In his wig, nightie and makeup on the train, Jack behaves like a kid at a smorgasbord, gleefully savouring his close proximity with an all-girl band. Tony Curtis, also in disguise, roughly reminds him, “No butter, no pastry and no sugar!” 

A person’s friendly attitude might seem encouraging, but it’s wise not to take liberties, such as straightening someone’s tie, patting their hair, or touching them lightly on the hand. It’s important to first assess the context and people’s different personalities. As human beings, we all tend to mirror each other – the better to “fit in”.  This isn’t licence to start slapping backs, linking arms or enveloping a person in a huge embrace because you believe in tactility. At the end of the day, you might enjoy some of your “work buddies”, but there’s boundaries (emotional and physical) that shouldn’t be crossed.

Longtime friends and work colleagues who work together will likely have long time accepted behaviours.

Never flirt, joke or make ambiguous remarks

Well, try not to. Humour is necessary, especially if you work in a competitive setup where there isn’t much to laugh about, but resist your urge to become the office clown. 

Not everybody grows up with the same cultural references, so meaningful subtleties about a show you like or a cheeky cartoon you’re sharing can cause people to become unexpectedly offended. Similarly, twiddling with one’s hair, adjusting one’s neckline or manspreading can all make an office an uncomfortable zone where everyone is tensely alert, their “fight or flight” responses triggered by casual sexual innuendo.

Widely-publicised sexual harassment scandals cause the old gripe deploring “touchy feely” behaviours to acquire fresh significance. Costly litigation and even greater cost to reputations (personal and company-wise) are the result. 

Women and men are increasingly speaking up on these issues, so it’s important to think about your own behaviour.

NOW READ: Eight steps to take control of your career 

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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