Drawing the Line Between Compliment and Sexual Harassment

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As Canada becomes more multicultural, the line between a compliment and sexual harassment has almost thinned out. The reasons are not farfetched; sexualization is a subjective matter influenced by culture, and the diverse community comprises people with different perspectives. There are instances of people replaying commentaries that are not distasteful in their community of origin but frowned upon in the Canadian context. This has led to allegations of sexual harassment against some immigrants. To guide our understanding of the Canadian standard, let’s examine the meaning of compliment and sexual harassment.    

The dictionary defines compliment as “an expression of praise, commendation, or admiration…a formal act or expression of civility, respect, or regard.” Some keywords to note in this definition are praise, commendation, civility, and respect. In a business environment, examples of expressions that fall within this definition (though not restricted to these) are, “That was a great presentation, John”, “Ola, you spoke with so much conviction our customers were in awe.” These comments reflect a person’s intelligence, work-related abilities, and other professional attributes. Indeed, such compliments have a place in every civil environment.  

On the other hand, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or other conduct of a sexual nature in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to the circumstances, would be offended, humiliated, or intimidated. In simple terms, sexual harassment is a violation of a person’s boundaries. This definition emphasizes the way the recipient feels about the remark. It is an unnecessary, unsolicited, unprovoked attention that interferes with the recipient’s guaranteed rights. The intention or otherwise of the accused is irrelevant. Hence, it is crucial always to maintain professional conduct, countenance, and speech that leaves no room for unintended interpretations, especially when relating to the opposite sex.  

Be mindful of compliments that dwell on a person’s physical attributes or description. Keep away from comments like: “You look sexy in Pink”, You have charming lips”, or “This dress highlights your figure.” These comments can be taken beyond the boundary of civility, commendation, praise, and respect. Comments like these give the impression of sexual thoughts and scheming, capable of making a reasonable person uncomfortable or potentially offended, especially if they have no romantic consideration towards the other.   

Does this mean compliments on appearance have no place in professional settings? If you must compliment a colleague or classmate on their appearance, there are better and more dignifying ways to do that.

For example: 

Sexual harassment: You look irresistibly gorgeous today. Hmm, is the guy taking you somewhere special?

Compliment: I love your outfit; you have a perfect dress sense. Where do you shop for your clothes?  

While the lines separating compliment and sexual harassment can be blurred in some cases, we do not want to lose a whole life or career for an avoidable reason. Dr. P is a specialist in a rare area of medicine and has been practising in Canada for over 15 years. He has a good relationship with some of his patients, even discussing personal matters. On one of his patient’s visits, she told him of her plans to vacation in Hawaii. Some weeks later, when the patient came for a follow-up examination, Dr. P inquired about her trip to Hawaii. The patient complained she did not enjoy the trip and considered it a waste of money! Surprised, Dr. P asked, “who did you go on the trip with?” In response, the patient said, “I went with my best friend.” Dr. P responded, “oh you missed it, to enjoy a place as beautiful as Hawaii, always go with the opposite sex. I have been there with my wife, and we had great fun.” The patient felt this line of conversation was inappropriate and pressed charges of sexual harassment against the doctor.   

If you feel tempted to have similar chats with classmates, colleagues, or clients, remember what brought you together in the first instance – profession. Crossing these lines without the expressed permission of the other can be grave and potentially cost you all you hold dear – family, career, and income. While opinions can vary, nobody wants to find themselves in a situation where your comments or actions are being put before a jury to determine its appropriateness.   

To show how serious the subject is, the Government of Saskatchewan recently amended The Saskatchewan Employment Act, which came into force on January 1, 2022, to clarify that the definition of harassment includes any unwelcome action of a sexual nature. This clarification aims to create safe workplaces for everybody.   

It is better to err on the side of caution by restricting all compliments to work-related subjects or less controversial issues like weather, pets, and sports. If in doubt, speak to the Human Resources unit of your workplace to know what the policy says about acceptable conducts. The prize to pay is not worth the risk.   

If you’re a victim, you have the right to tell the harasser to stop the unwelcomed behaviour. It is not out of place to document your attempt to stop the harassment in an email. If it does not stop or you still feel unsafe with the person in the same workspace, you may discuss it with a supervisor. Suppose your organization’s management fails to take necessary action and the harassment continues. You can lodge a formal complaint with evidence (if available) to the Canadian Human Rights Commission or agency in your province or territory.

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