Analysis: there are very clear guidelines on what constitutes sexual harassment at work and they also extend to the office Christmas party

By Lorraine Ryan and Sarah Kieran, University of Limerick

Hugh Grant's British prime minister ended up happily married to his tea lady, while POTUS "did not have sexual relations with that woman". When it comes to office romance, is there a line and what if it is Love Actually?

For the survivors and activists of the #MeToo movement, a very clear line was crossed leading to legal investigations and charges. Recently, the CEO of McDonalds lost his job due to a relationship with an employee that, while consensual, was against company policy. Therefore, there are many lines; legal, ethical, moral, social and we need to talk about and understand them all.

Office romance or sexual harassment?

We spend a lot of our time at work and can form close friendships with work colleagues. A close-knit group of work mates might share aspects of their personal lives, socialise together outside of work and even enjoy a joke at each other’s expense. Surely, these are positives for organisations that value teamwork, good morale and collegiality?

Sometimes these friendships blossom into something more. Whether a drunken but consensual (although perhaps subsequently regretted) kiss at the Christmas party or a more meaningful long term relationship, office romances have long been part of organisational life. So what’s the harm with a little flirting at work - and when does that cross the line to become sexual harassment?

From the Department of Justice and Equality's No Excuses campaign

Impact not intent

The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 provide guidance on what constitutes sexual harassment at work. It is "any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person". Conduct can include unwelcome jokes, comments about body or clothing, unwanted touching or unwelcome sexual advances to more serious incidents of sexual assault or rape.

However another critical concept is that of impact not intent. It does not matter if the perpetrator did not intend to sexually harass the employee; it is the impact of their behaviour that is important. As a general rule, the type of behaviour portrayed as entertaining in Mad Men or Dolly Parton’s movie 9 to 5 is simply not acceptable in the workplace.

No excuses

Earlier this year the Government launched the No Excuses campaign which highlights scenarios, featuring both male and female perpetrators, that constitute sexual harassment at work. But judging by a new report by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), it seems many are still failing to get the message. The report found that 80% of those who experience sexual harassment at work do not report it to their employer. Typically the reasons why employees don’t report such incidents relate to fear and futility: fear of the perpetrator, the repercussions or the impact on career; and futility in feeling that there is no point reporting as nothing will be done. The survey results certainly point to futility.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke show, ICTU researcher and Social Policy Officer Laura Bambrick discusses their report on sexual harassment in the workplace

Of those who did report incidents, only one in four felt that their complaint was taken seriously or dealt with properly. In the wake of #MeToo, one might expect that organisations would have come much further in their efforts to address what is, at its core, insidious power play by some and an affront to dignity at work for all. Apparently not. The ICTU report highlights some alarming statistics that pose a number of important questions in relation to (in)appropriate workplace behaviours.

Are office romances ever OK?

The legislation is clear on what’s unacceptable in terms of unwanted conduct, but what about consensual romantic or sexual relationships at work? What if you fancy Dave from accounts (*) and want to go on a date?In the McDonald’s case, although the relationship was consensual, the CEO was found to have violated company policy which prohibited dating or sexual relationships between employees and those to which they have a direct or indirect reporting relationship i.e. you’re not allowed be amorous with the boss!

Because of the potential for litigation in light of #MeToo or because workplace relationships are viewed as unprofessional, organisations have a difficult task to manage. Regardless of the potential negative career fall out, what happens when a workplace relationship breaks up? We all remember that Bridget Jones' quote "if staying here means working within 10 yards of you, frankly, I'd rather have a job wiping Saddam Hussein's arse" (Hugh Grant was the boss here again in the film version, by the way). However, most finding themselves in that situation do not have the option to simply get another job and instead might find awkwardness and embarrassment for all concerned.

The office Christmas party

With office Christmas parties, employers must be cognisant of their liability for sexual harassment by anyone their employees might reasonably expect to come into contact with "during the course of employment". This has been found to include parties outside of work, whether organised by the employer or not.

From RTÉ 2fm, Maia Dunphy's tips on how not make an absolute fool of yourself at the office Christmas party

Rather than relying on employees to report incidents, organisations need to send a clear message of zero tolerance of sexual harassment behaviour. Of course this is a difficult task, given the human nature of workplace relationships and interactions and the distinctions between unwanted and consensual behaviours.

A good start, however, would be to create a visible line for everyone by sharing the facts (this article might help) and taking complaints seriously. Dealing with these complaints in an appropriate manner would help address the fear and futility of reporting felt by victims. Finally, if you are the one tasked with organising the office Christmas party, it might be wise to put away the mistletoe!

* Please note neither of the authors knows nor fancies a "Dave from accounts". 

Dr Lorraine Ryan is a Lecturer in Employment Relations and Human Resource Management at the Department of Work and Employment Studies at Kemmy Business School at University of LimerickDr Sarah Kieran is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Human Resource Management at the Department of Work and Employment Studies at Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ