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Analysis: This Is an Awkward One

Analysis: This Is an Awkward One

A supervisor who delights in telling female workers how pretty they are needs behavior modification even though he means no harm

Rebecca Reisner / Business Week

Did Tara Conroy do the right thing when she asked her boss to stop telling her and other employees how “especially lovely” they look today—even though the man clearly meant well?

Although experts have different ideas about how to go about it, they agree that the flattery needed to stop.

“Even if it’s not sexual harassment, it’s definitely inappropriate behavior,” says Jennifer Maxwell Parkinson, owner of Look Consulting International, an image and business-etiquette consulting firm. “It’s one thing to say ’you’ve done a great job’ or ‘I love the report you wrote,’ or ‘thanks for getting that to me so fast.’ But talking about someone’s appearance so much is stepping over a personal boundary.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean Pete’s remarks constitute sexual harassment, as defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment has more to do with intentionally demeaning employees with comments of a sexual nature or seeking sexual favors from them and basing decisions affecting the employee on whether or not she or he tolerates or accepts such overtures.

Ed’s constant attention to the physical appearance of the women in the office could, however, approach “gender harassment.” Although it’s a little-discussed aspect of discrimination law, the Civil Rights Act protects against it.

“Say that every day, twice a day, your boss says, ‘Nice outfit. You look fantastic,’ and pretty soon it starts driving you nuts. That might be gender harassment,” says John S. Marshall, a Columbus (Ohio) lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases. According to Marshall, gender harassment has to meet four criteria:

1. It interferes with work

2. It’s based on gender

3. It’s severe or pervasive

4. It’s unwelcome.

The first criterion appears to be lacking in Tara’s case. The flattery was an annoyance, not an obstruction to work. And Tara had no desire to initiate any litigation against Pete. But who knows whether one of her other co-workers might feel inclined to consult with a lawyer about Pete’s conduct?

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