The Harvey Weinstein scandal at the end of last year was not merely an indictment of one boss or even one industry, but a veritable can of worms that led to revelations across the globe from women (and some men) who claim to have been sexually harassed or abused by people they have worked with. 

Yet the defence of many of the accused is a common one: it was just a joke; office banter. According to a tweet by Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce, in response to two separate accusations against George Bush for molesting women during photo shoots: ‘To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and, on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner.’1 Later it emerged that the ‘joke’ revolved around his favourite magician being ‘David Cop-A-Feel’. According to the ex-President’s spokesperson, Jim McGrath, in a statement to CNN about the allegation, ‘President Bush would never — under any circumstance — intentionally cause anyone distress, and he most sincerely apologises if his attempt at humour offended.’2 

I suspect that many historical ‘gropers’ would offer up this defence and claim that it was a joke that, in the context of the times, was acceptable. But times have changed and what may once have been considered as a bit of benign workplace ‘pestering’, is now, quite simply, sexual assault. And anyone in today’s workplace who doesn’t get that message is entitled to be thrown to the wolves over their behaviour. 

The potential downside is that there could be a danger of creating a culture of fear for employees, who may worry that their comments or banter might be misconstrued. In a changing landscape over what’s OK or not OK at work, I’ve considered some of those more common ‘fine lines’. 

Is it OK to comment on the clothing or appearance of a colleague? Well, that depends if they are sexual comments or not; telling someone they look smart, or the colour suits them etc is OK; using descriptors like ‘sexy’ is not and nor is making comments in relation to chest or buttocks. This goes for women too; admiring a man’s tie is OK but remarking that their shirt shows off their pecs nicely is not. 

Is it OK to refer to Kim Kardashian’s bottom in the workplace? Probably not if said in an overtly sexual way; discussion of whether she is a good role model for women might be OK but commenting on the sexual allure of her assets is not. 

Male employees viewing pornographic images on the internet in an office where a female colleague is present constitutes sexual harassment.3 But what about the popular trend for charity calendars featuring naked firefighters, rugby players and even knitters? Can these be displayed at work? They should probably be regarded as no different from any other pictures of semi-naked people. If it makes anyone uncomfortable, then the answer is no. 

Jokes or banter with sexual content is a definite no nowadays (shame no one told Bush that). Of the one thousand five hundred and fifty-three women who took part in a TUC survey in 2016,4 thirty-two per cent had been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature. Sexual jokes that may be considered harassment can include descriptions of sex acts, sexual language or sexual innuendo (‘David Cop-A-Feel)’. This includes jokes or cartoons sent by email, commenting or ‘liking’ such jokes on social media or forwarding such material at work or using work resources. 

Is it OK to ask a colleague out on a date? Yes – as long as there is no compulsion on one party to accept in order to further their career. And, the person asking has to immediately accept a ‘no’ or else risks straying across that fine line. 

The Harvey Weinstein affair may well prove to be a watershed moment in how sexual harassment is recognised and treated at work, but it should not leave ordinary employees feeling confused. An article in The Guardian5 points out that the common litmus test of sexual harassment (‘how would I feel if this happened to me?’) is inappropriate, since different people have different views on what they deem offensive, hostile or degrading. But if employees exercise a bit of common sense, thought and respect, then the risk of crossing that line can be minimised.

Dr Sandi Mann is Senior Psychology Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and Director of The Mind Training Clinic.