Lately, it seems we can't turn on the news without hearing about another allegation of sexual harassment.  With all of this attention on the subject, it is an excellent time to review the way we are behaving in our places of work to ensure we are not harassing our coworkers with words we think are compliments.

Here is what you need to know now about the difference between compliments and harassment in the workplace.

What is considered sexual harassment?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted) The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer."  Sexual harassment may include unwanted sexual advances, or it can be an inappropriate comment about a person's sex. Harassment can be done by men and women, and both men and women can be victims.    

What is a compliment?

According to Merriam-Webster, a compliment is defined as "an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration".  Based on this definition, the intent of a compliment is to show respect and make someone feel good.  A compliment should not make someone feel threatened or uncomfortable.  Gender should have no bearing on a workplace compliment. Appropriate compliments are those that could be delivered to either a man or a woman, such as complimenting a job well done.

Is it a compliment or sexual harassment?

If you are unsure if your words are going to be taken as a compliment or sexual harassment, it is probably best to not say them. However, there are times compliments are welcome and they can even enhance workplace relationships when delivered respectfully.  

A compliment is meant to make someone feel good about themselves.  On the other hand, sexual harassment is often used to gain power over the other person or to make them feel uncomfortable. The best type of compliments to give coworkers are related to their achievements, intelligence or skills.  While it is important to praise quality work, professionalism and all of the things that make an employee valuable, it is equally important to know where to draw the line between a compliment and a comment that can be taken as harassment. 

Below is an example of a compliment versus a comment that would be construed as sexual harassment.

Compliment:  You did a great job on the presentation for the client this morning.  I believe your efforts will pay off in closing the deal.

Sexual harassment:  I loved the way you looked in the dress you wore to the presentation this morning.  I would like to get together after work today so that we can discuss your next pay raise.

Legally speaking, sexual harassment is anything to do regarding sex (sexual activities) or a sex (male/female). Not only can words come across as sexual or suggestive, but body language and signals can be easily misinterpreted. This is why it is essential to be mindful of your physical body, as well as your expressions. In fact, over half of physical attraction is exhibited by body language.

If your eyes linger, your body comes in too close, or your hands touch your employee, these are things that can be interpreted as sexual or suggestive. As a rule, be sure you are complimenting someone for the way they make your team or company work, rather than how they look.

Not all examples of harassment are so straightforward.  There is no doubt there are gray areas.  The most important thing to remember is to speak respectfully to all coworkers, regardless of their gender.  Whatever is spoken should be appropriate to say to either a man or women.  If you don't have a policy in your business its time to address it. 

It's time to treat people as we all want to be treated which is with dignity and respect. I applaud the action taken by some of the large media companies in taking action quickly to fire those responsible for harassment. Just remember the golden rule. If you have any doubt that what you might say may be considered inappropriate, it probably is, and you shouldn't say it.