Updated: Jun 14, 2019
We’ve heard solutions to sexual harassment wherein companies have the women dress like men. Not only is this a completely ineffective band-aid, that “solution” entirely misses the point. It doesn’t matter what anyone is wearing, you don’t have the right to touch a sexual part of their body. Are we animals? Are we only instinctual and incapable of restraint? In hot weather, is everyone “asking for it,” because they wear less clothes? We have a lot of experience in the service industry and know firsthand that without boundaries, trouble ensues. It’s time that restaurants take responsibility and find healthy ways of navigating workplace interaction. (Like what you find in our sexual harassment policy and resources.)
Let's say you work with someone and have a great rapport with them. There is great chemistry, and you make each other laugh. But none of those factors make you actually want to engage in any sort of sexual or physical interaction with them. This is difficult for us to discern at times, right? We know we are attracted to someone else, and we feel that they’re attracted to us.
How do we know when it’s right for it to be physical?
The simple answer is - NEVER, EVER, EVER, within your workplace location. This is not to say that you can’t or won’t date coworkers, but it is to say that you don’t have the right to touch your coworker in a sexual manner within your workplace, and you should never assume you know someone else’s boundaries. This is an important distinction many people don’t understand. Sometimes coworkers feel an attraction and think that physical touch is the next step. Oh I’ll just touch her butt/breast and see how she reacts. Touching the sexual part of someone else's body can be incredible violative (breasts, butt, crotch). It's important to realize that consent is necessary, and the law assumes that if consent hasn't been expressed, it hasn't been given. At work, the reason this is also so incredibly toxic (and illegal), is your coworker doesn’t even have the opportunity to openly react the way they could in a social setting. You can't accurately gauge their emotional response. They have to maintain a professional composure. They might be busy and in the middle of something. They might feel incredibly awkward, embarrassed, shocked, and demeaned, that you touched them in a sexual way. You also might react negatively to their rejection and make their work more difficult. Not only does everyone have the right to physical boundaries, workers are legally protected, and there may be serious repercussions. You never want to assume, because you don’t know.
Let’s look at all the reasons, someone you’re attracted to might not want to be touched:
· They’re in a relationship
· You’re in a relationship
· They’re not actually attracted to you
· They are attracted to you, but not interested in a relationship with you, and hence not interested in physical touch
· They’re not interested in dating (or physical touch) with anyone they work with
· They are just being friendly and the last thing they want is to be touched by you
It is understandable that we’re human beings, and we naturally feel varying levels of attraction to one another.
What’s unnatural, is to forget that everyone has the right to choose who they have physical interaction with. Restaurants are so difficult because there are no boundaries set, and some people think they get to explore things as they like. Alcohol makes discernment even harder. There are more innocent misunderstandings that occur when someone is genuinely interested in someone else, and there are more toxic environments where people believe they have the right to touch others or demean them as they like. “(This person) is begging for it.” Things can get even more hostile with gossip or ruined reputations. Because there are often no boundaries set, physical trespass, degradation, misunderstandings, poor intentions, lies, and ignorance, all play out in harassment. The worst part about the masculine uniform “solution” to sexual harassment, is that it gives permission to touch a woman who dresses in a feminine way – when that is NEVER a right.
It also isn’t right, to force staff to wear clothing that objectifies them. “Show more cleavage,” is not an employers right to dictate. Certainly, it might be part of your brand for everyone to wear a masculine uniform, and that is your decision (ineffective for sexual harassment, but an employer can certainly choose this style). Or conversely, your company might be Hooters, and people are aware of what they are signing up for (which is to wear little clothing – not to be touched). But if your establishment out of the blue specifically asks its female employees to wear clothing to reveal their body, then a manager is engaging in too sexual a discussion, objectifying female employees, and crossing the line. There’s nothing wrong with dressing femininely; there is something wrong with being forced to reveal your body to keep your job.
Let's look at the photo again for a moment. These women knew they were coming in to model body suits. That was the job they signed up for. As models, they are standing close to each other. Notice how no one has their hand on someone else's butt or breast. Part of physical boundaries is absolutely unacceptable hand placement, and that someone else being incredibly close to you is on a permission basis. It's also important to note that their clothing does not give anyone else the right to touch them. For instance, the photographer doesn't just get to go cuddle and and touch what he chooses to, though they work together.
Sometimes people dress to be seen. Sometimes people dress to feel confident – it’s irrelevant. It is okay, to be attracted to them. What’s not ok, is when you reduce your coworker to a body part in front of everyone, when you think that your attraction gives you the right to touch them, when you verbally demean them, or when you insinuate something about their sexuality to other coworkers. It’s a workplace. It isn’t a social hour. In fact, someone might not be choosing to socialize with you at all.
The thing is, it doesn’t matter what someone is wearing. You don’t have the right to touch them (especially at work, when the unwanted behavior is so difficult to address). It doesn’t matter what someone’s reputation is, or even if they slept with everyone but you, you don’t have the right to touch someone in a sexual part of their body without their permission. At work, you don’t have the right to demean them verbally either, and if this seems complicated to navigate for you, then it’s just best to avoid sexual topics at work altogether. People aren't coming to work to hear about someone else's sexual opinions, or to be someone else's gratification. They are coming to work to support their livelihood.
If you’re romantically interested in a coworker, then you can ask them to do something outside of work. If they’re interested then you can take it from there, though it’s important to note – they might still perceive this as friendship and you always have to pay attention to consent. Socializing isn’t consent for physical touch, and drinking can make this much harder to discern. In varying ways, at times we all have misunderstood someone else’s romantic interest. It’s good to be communicative in open ways that make it possible for the person to easily express their interest - or lack thereof - without any negative repercussion. This is also someone you have to see in a professional setting, and it’s advisable to take your time. If a coworker makes it clear that your romantic pursuit is not welcome, your pursuit of them must stop. No one should feel uncomfortable at their workplace, or have someone else’s aggressive chase interfere with their job. We all have to use emotional intelligence, and communicate. If a behavior makes a coworker truly uncomfortable, that should be communicated and the behavior must change. A communicative environment that encourages this navigation to respect (and even openness on what that individually means) is a successful one.
The true root understanding that a company must reach, is that everyone deserves dignity, respect, and safety. That means, everyone has the right to physical boundaries (by law), and not to be diminished by any prejudice against their race, sexuality, gender identification, age, or sexual identification (by law). There is so much that restaurant culture teaches a relatively young, inexperienced group of employees. Sometimes people perceive the lack of boundaries to be "fun," but then it always leads to trouble, crossed boundaries, and disrespect. These environments could engage in healthy expressions of fun if they so choose. Owners and managers are the leaders of their community, and they always have the opportunity to require professional standards that comply with the law and honor their staff. Individuals always have the opportunity to stand up to "locker room talk," to affirm the rights of others, to treat others the way they want to be treated.
Strong physical boundaries are the first step in creating healthy environments amongst a diverse group of people. There is so much trespass born of ignorance, and so much discomfort that could easily be eradicated if given voice to. Respectful environments aren't difficult to maintain, they just require clarity. Our sexual harassment resources create respectful environments, and this article is meant to be shared to have an open discussion and education on why physical boundaries are necessary. Not only will this protect the work performance of your staff, their legal rights, and teach consent - it avoids lawsuits, enhances profit and customer experience, and leads to healthy team environments where everyone can offer their best.