Influences on Compliment Reception
There is a difference between making a sincere compliment that would be welcomed by a female coworker and attaching a sexual implication to such a supposed compliment by the way it is said. For example, say that this comment is made in a tone of voice that would be considered sexual and not really a compliment, but is rather offensive to her. Let’s look at two different ways this statement may be made:
- You look very nice today.
- You look very nice today!
Say in the first example that this statement was in a matter-of-fact manner with no particular emphasis on the word “nice,” and in a sincere tone of voice that was intended to be nothing more than a compliment on the women’s appearance that day. Would there be anything particularly wrong with making such a comment to a coworker? Probably not, and it likely would not present any problem.
Now, look at the second example in which the word “nice” is emphasized or exaggerated. Say that this word was said in a sexual manner as just indicated, and was intended to not be a compliment but more of a proposition of some kind? Obviously, there would be a big difference between how these same two statements expressed in such different ways would be received.
Taking this a step further, the second statement could actually be a violation of an organization’s sexual harassment policy and there could be actions taken against the person making this type of comment, especially if repeated frequently or a complaint has been made. What would be the appropriate actions that should be taken against the person making these comments?
To encourage appropriate workplace behavior, the offender should be told by someone in authority, such as their supervisor or a member of the Human Resources department, to stop making these comments in such an offensive manner or they could face future disciplinary actions. If this was a repeated offense, the consequences could be greater to the offender. Also, the offender should be told not to complain to or confront the woman who reported the behavior or retaliate against her in any manner.
It is also likely in such a circumstance that the offender will try to claim that he didn’t mean anything offensive by this statement and that they were just trying to pay the woman a compliment. Despite this claim, it is still important that this offensive behavior be addressed in regard to how it was intended, and the offender should be counseled on the inappropriateness of this behavior.
Now, let’s say that this comment was made by a woman’s male boss. Could that make a difference in how it was received? The answer is that it could. What if this comment was made frequently or even on a daily basis by the woman’s boss? Could this make her constantly feel uncomfortable at work? What if it was typically made in front of other male colleagues? Could that make her feel even more uncomfortable?
Women may not want their male bosses thinking about them in this way or commenting on their appearance in such a regular or public manner. The point is that these sensitivities need to be recognized and respected concerning how these types of comments may ultimately be received. What is most important is how the person feels about receiving such a compliment. This is even more important than the intentions of the person making such a comment.
Let’s change the previous statement from “You look nice today” to “You look hot in that outfit today!” Would there be any question about the appropriateness of this comment? Obviously, there should not be a question about the appropriateness of such a comment. However, for some women, there may not be that much difference between these two statements if either makes her feel uncomfortable with the attention she is receiving from either comment.
Sexual Harassment Defined
The point that needs to be understood is that the definition of sexual harassment is unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature based on his or her sex. The key word in this definition is unwelcome. If such compliments are unwelcome, then it is a problem. To maintain appropriate workplace behavior, It is important for everyone in an organization to be sensitive to the feelings of coworkers concerning comments that could make them feel embarrassed or even harassed in some manner.
Finally, this is not to say that all common courtesies such as making sincere, appropriate comments on coworkers’ appearances should be banned from the organization, but everyone should have some sense of how these comments might be received. In one instance during a sexual harassment training class, as this topic was being discussed, a woman stood up and said, “I just want to tell all you guys here that you can compliment me as often as you want about my appearance!” There was no doubt about how she felt about such comments. Unfortunately, it is not always as clear how others may feel about comments on their appearance, and everyone needs to remain sensitive to how others may feel about receiving such compliments regardless of the intent of the person making this type of comment.
You can learn more about this and other topics on sexual harassment to promote appropriate workplace behavior by attending the upcoming webinar, Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, presented by retired HR professional and author Peter R. Garber, and sponsored by HRDQ-U on December 20, 2023.