Appropriate and inappropriate workplace behavior

The recent spate of revelations about inappropriate behavior in the workplace has largely dealt with pretty serious offenses where the wrongdoing was obvious. But what about gray areas where people may not be sure if something is appropriate or not? To explore this NPR, in conjunction with the polling outfit Ipsos, conducted a survey to see what people thought was appropriate and what was not and reporter Danielle Kurtzleben discussed the results on last Saturday’s episode of All Things Considered.

So, we asked people about a dozen workplace behaviors, you know, from unwanted touching to just asking about a co-worker’s social life. And on a lot of these, a majority of people thought that those behaviors were inappropriate on balance.

The behaviors that people thought were the most inappropriate were deliberate touching but also some things we don’t hear about in this Me Too cultural moment right now, things like gossiping or speculating about your co-worker’s sexual preference. And meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, what the fewest people thought was inappropriate in all of the things that we asked was a co-worker asking a co-worker of equal rank out on a date. But even then, 30 percent of people said that was inappropriate.

You know, we asked people if they had seen these things happen in the workplace and even some things that people saw as very inappropriate like telling sexual stories or jokes or calling an adult female in the workplace babe or sweetie or, you know, some iteration of that. A majority of people said they had seen those things at work even though around 8 or 9 in 10 people thought those things were inappropriate. Likewise, about half of people have seen their co-worker discussing each other’s sexual preferences or history. And about a third say they have seen deliberate touching or leaning or cornering or something to that effect.

Take commenting on a co-worker’s appearance, for example. Saying to a co-worker, hey, that’s a cool dress you’re wearing, that can be perceived as a very different thing from saying that dress looks great on you.

Two different things you could say about a co-worker’s appearance and two very different ways to perceive that.

The last bit about the subtle differences in commenting on a co-worker’s appearance was interesting to me in the light of the discussion that I had with a friend who lamented the fact that at work men could no longer tell a woman that she was looking pretty without being viewed with suspicion. Commenting on a specific item of appearance (“That’s a nice dress/tie/…”) is more acceptable than commenting on how it affects the person’s looks (“The dress/tie/… looks great on you”).

Some might feel that we are becoming overly sensitive, as evidenced by the widespread use of the pejorative term ‘snowflakes’. But there is a benefit to becoming more self-consciously aware of what is and what is not acceptable because over time these become internalized and the new norm. That is usually how social change happens.


  1. jazzlet says

    That is an interestng distinction and it has made me realise that if I am complimenting a stranger I will say (as I did the other day to someone passing me in a car park) ‘Lovely scarf’. If I know the person very well I might say ‘You look fantastic in that dress’. I do comment on clothes that total strangers are wearing to say that they are beautiful, lovely, some other positive and those comments have always caused the recipient to smile broadly, rightly or wrongly I see this as a way of spreading a little happiness, but I don’t think I would do it if I was male.

  2. Dunc says

    On the other hand, nobody would think it inappropriate for a man to go out in public without a hat any more, so it’s not as if the travel is all in one direction…

  3. kestrel says

    Although people claim to be confused about this… I have to wonder if they genuinely are. It’s pretty easy for me to tell the difference between “That is a great color for you” and “Wow, your long hair is really sexy”. I think it’s pretty easy to tell the difference for the people who say such things, as well. Now, if that makes people stop and think, *that is not a bad thing*. There is nothing wrong or horrible about thinking about what you say, before you say it.

    And yes, honest to goodness: I witnessed a man walking into an office and telling the secretary that her long hair was really sexy and then he informed her that he was really into oral sex. WTF. And now I hear people claiming how that is all innocent, and that they are afraid to compliment a woman. OK. If you truly are afraid to compliment a woman on her appearance, then DON’T DO IT. See? Easy peasy. And if you say, but I can’t tell the difference… then again all I can say is, don’t say it, then. Just shut up. This is not hard.

    And guys: do you really walk into your male co-worker’s office and tell them their long hair is really sexy, and you are into oral sex? REALLY? Guys, if you think cat-calling is just hunky-dory, do you also cat-call great big guys in black leather and generally dressed like Hell’s Angels? If what you are saying has to do with a power differential, don’t say it. Simple.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    Somewhere there is a gray area where different people will have honest differences of opinion about whether something is appropriate. I have yet to read a story about someone being disciplined or dragged on the twitters for any such gray area.

  5. Callinectes says

    I get by by not talking to anyone, which suits me fine. It leaves me as one of the more well-liked colleagues, presumably because everyone else is constantly pissing off everyone else.

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