In most organizations today, an employee spends close to 8 to 10 hours at workplace. In some other organizations, depending upon the industry, this also goes up to 12 to 15 hours. Given that these employees spend half of their lives at workplace, it is natural that they would have social conversations with colleagues that keep them engaged and connected with each other.
In fact, senior officials in several organizations are often tasked with conducting activities, team building exercises and games etc. to ensure interaction between employees as this ensures better team work, co-ordination, an active mind and also keeps employees prepared for long hours of work. Such activities also present the over-all idea that the work environment that is a happy and friendly one.
However, depending upon the comfort level etc. with each other, when social conversations take place, many colleagues often become friends, which leads them to have friendly discussions and sharing details related to personal life, likes, dislikes, jokes, funny incidents etc. as well (including sharing jokes with sexual connotation, discussing sexual habits, experiences etc.). This is also the time when the line between social & personal conversations begins to blur, thereby causing difficulty for an individual to pre-empt which conversations or jokes become unwelcome or unacceptable to the other person. And when conversations become unwelcome, two things happen: (1) It leads to shock and disbelief for the person making such conversation who believes it was ‘friendly’ sometimes even to the extent of confusion leading to continuation of such behaviour and (2) It leads the recipient of the conversation to feel uncomfortable even to the extent of feeling that it is an invasion into their private life. If the comfort level is such that the colleagues share their discomfort with each other and such conversations are stopped, then it may not lead to future problems, however, if the relationship is such that the discomfort arising from such conversations is not shared (due to fear of being judged or laughed at etc.), such unwelcome behaviour continues, which eventually leads the recipient to feel frustrated and feeling that the work environment has become unfriendly or ‘hostile’. If this is not addressed on time, it may also lead to filing of complaints of sexual harassment, if the recipient does not choose to simply leave the organization.
What is the solution? While stopping colleagues from having conversations may not be good for the business or the colleagues, having regular awareness sessions may be a good starting point to deal with such situations – to make employees aware that having conversations is good and having the right kind of conversation is also something to be kept in mind. They should be told about individual boundaries and healthy work environment and what a hostile work environment may mean for an individual and that it is okay to share it with their colleagues if they are uncomfortable with having certain kinds of discussions.
Another important reason for having these sessions regularly is that in modern times, where workplaces are shifting to a more open culture with employee work stations being more open instead of having cabins, it has become important to understand concepts such as hostile work environment. Often the connection between hostile work environment and sexual harassment is not very clear as sexual harassment is commonly understood to be something that one person does to another directly and hostile work environment, often, is given a more liberal interpretation as it is commonly understood as fun or workplace banter or ‘boys will be boys’ behaviour. While, the open work stations etc. come along with several positives making it difficult for quid pro quo kind of a sexual harassment to exist, however, it does not insulate employer from a hostile work environment kind of situation because open work stations means open conversation which could mean – overhearing of gossips about others or themselves, being made fun of in big groups etc., feeling left out or feeling bullied especially if these discussions are of a sexual nature and the recipient is uncomfortable to have such conversations. Awareness sessions, thus, bring the required understanding and maturity to employees by informing them about sexual harassment and hostile work environment, their connection and the consequences of creating a hostile work environment.