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When is a 'compliment' sexual harassment?

We've all heard people say that employees (usually women) who complain about sexual harassment are too sensitive or can't take a joke. Sometimes, people claim they feel like they can't give a colleague or employee a compliment without it being construed as sexual harassment.

In fact, a true compliment is not sexual harassment. It's defined by Merriam-Webster as "an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration". That's a far cry from sexual harassment, which is described by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as "so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or…results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)." The harasser can be a co-worker, someone in authority or even a customer or other person the employee has to deal with to do their job.

A good way to determine whether what might be compliment could be considered harassment is to ask whether it could be said to someone regardless of their gender. Of course, both men and women can be the victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment. However, an appropriate workplace compliment shouldn't focus on a person's appearance, clothing or body.

Telling an employee or colleague that they made a well-thought-out, effective presentation will likely make them feel good -- as a compliment should. Telling them that the dress they wore really showed off their figure or that they look great since they lost all that weight could easily make them feel uncomfortable and objectified -- even if it was genuinely intended to make them feel good. Linking any reference to a person's appearance to a raise, promotion or favorable treatment can be particularly problematic.

Sexual harassment isn't always clear-cut. There are a lot of gray areas. However, if someone's words or actions make you feel uncomfortable or threatened, it's best to speak up -- to the person engaging in the behavior, a manager or someone in human resources. If the behavior continues and you no longer feel safe in your workplace or able to do your job, it may be wise to find out what your legal options are.

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