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Compliment or Sexual Harassment?

April 2, 2019

Numerous sexual harassment stories have been shared in the last couple of years, highlighting how pervasive sexual harassment is in every industry. There are several instances where sexual harassment is so clear that there is no question in anyone’s mind that abuse is taking place.

However, there are other subtle forms of harassment that can make someone feel uncomfortable or threatened. For example, what do you think about the following statement: “Those pants look great on you”.

Is it a friendly co-worker or sexual harassment?

The right answer for the scenario above is: It depends on the context.

Can you say that comment to a co-worker you feel you have a friendship with and be okay? Sure you can! However, remember that even simple comments with good intentions can come across poorly, and it can be difficult to navigate what is and is not appropriate. A compliment in the workplace can easily cross lines. As we can see in the video above, several factors can influence the effect of a phrase like that one, like tone, proximity, relationship with the person who is saying it and power dynamics.

Tone and body language are the easiest to understand. So, let’s discuss power dynamics.

Any form of sexual assault or harassment is an intentional method of one person having power and control over another. If the person who is saying the comment comes from someone in power, like a teacher, a coach, or a boss, it makes the interaction more complicated. The person receiving the comment may feel uncomfortable and forced to respond in a certain way. During our anti-harassment programs, we often hear that when employees get complimented on their physical appearance one common concern is: “Don’t I dress professionally all the time?”

That is why it is better to not to compliment on someone’s physical appearance on any professional environment. In this instance, we could re-think our wording and say: “Those pants are awesome!” instead of “those pants look great on you” that way we are not focusing on someone’s body but on the clothing item.  

In closing, we think It is absolutely possible to compliment your coworkers in a respectful way. In fact, we think it’s great to compliment someone in your workplace to make them feel empowered and recognizing all their great skills. While some compliments might be authentic, some can be full of innuendos that can create a toxic environment.  Check out our blog: 15 Ways to Compliment a Co-Worker, for some inspiration.

Catharsis Productions

Catharsis Productions' mission is to change the world by producing innovative, accessible and 
research-supported programming that challenges oppressive attitudes and shifts behavior.