Is “Inappropriate Touching” Sexual Harassment?

A pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek, or a hug may seem harmless, but can easily escalate to sexual harassment. While most workers know the rules about inappropriate or offensive touching in the workplace, many people don’t think twice about other forms of physical contact with co-workers like handshakes or rubbing someone’s back. Outgoing people often view casual touches as warm and caring, but more reserved people may regard any physical contact as intrusive and an invasion of their personal space.

There are certain gestures in the workplace that are obvious and unmistakably offensive or sexual, but often times people don’t think about other forms of physical contact that might be uncomfortable to others. People do sometimes jokingly, for example, like reaching out and giving a “funny” slap on the behind, without thinking twice. A pat on the back or shoulder, or a two-handed handshake while looking into someone’s eyes, can give a co-worker the creeps. The person who is initiating the contact may in no way mean to be offensive, but the person being touched is often highly offended.

So how does “inappropriate touching” differ from sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment includes any unwelcome verbal or physical behavior that creates a hostile work environment and comes in two (2) forms; quid pro quo and hostile work environment. In quid pro quo, a boss bases an employee’s job duties on the employee’s consent to sexual acts, whereas, in a hostile work environment, the workplace is flooded with jokes, gestures, pictures, or offensive touching. It becomes a hostile and abusive work environment, even if the conduct is not directed at the person who is offended. As employers recognize the need for both women and men to feel comfortable and safe at work, the consequences of sexual harassment become much stricter.

Because a person’s individual sensitivities and need for personal space varies so widely, “inappropriate touching” – from a happy slap on the back to a kiss on the cheek can be complained about to management. “Inappropriate touching”, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person are examples of sexual harassment and regardless of the intent, if the touching is perceived as sexual or unwelcome, it could rise to sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment violations can cost companies up to millions of dollars in lawsuits. To protect themselves, companies should provide anti-harassment training to its employees to ensure employees understand what “inappropriate touching” and sexual harassment are and that “inappropriate touching” may be perceived as sexual harassment.

Expert Human Resources provides personalized employee training for anti-harassment. Call us today for more information!

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