Home >opinion >blogs >Understatement: How to compliment your colleague (and not be nailed for sexual harassment)

This afternoon, a group of senior professionals sat around a lunch table over an informal discussion at Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) on what the recent debates on sexual harassment at the workplace will mean for organisations. This was an organized discussion, but without prepared speeches. It mandated an embargo on reporting outside who said what. So I am unable to take names but wanted to bring back what will be issues for many organizations to deal with in the future.

Debating how professional clarities (vocabulary and body language too) will pan out given the caution and wariness that most people now feel at workplaces, this group provoked many comments. How will large-scale manufacturing companies—where hundreds of men and women work together—deal with this? On what basis will a woman now get a job—will your employer first check referrals to see if you are a trouble-maker or not? Will girls get internships at all? Wouldn’t not having women employees at all be the simplest solution for small offices not equipped with the mechanisms of security, redressal and equality compliance? Most importantly, will there be so much preference for male employees that women may need to nudge a new movement for affirmative action to find equal employment?

This is the second time in a week that I found myself almost unable to fence off the scepticism people from other industries and professions feel about what they call “trial by media". Last week, at the Taj Literature Festival in Agra, at a session titled What Happens When the Watchdogs Fail (watchdogs being the media and the judiciary), the organisers increased the session time by 20 minutes because Agra residents just wouldn’t stop asking questions about media ethics. Today at the IIC discussion, this sentiment of distrust about the media and its monstrous ranting surfaced again.

The recent scramble of human resource managers in organisations to adhere to the Sexual Harassment Act 2013 has given rise to confusing walls of silence and doubt between male and female colleagues. As we pick up the pieces, innocuous but fundamental questions have begun to be asked. ‘What if I compliment a woman colleague—can it be misconstrued as sexual harassment? Is it okay to say: ‘you are wearing a nice sari?’ ‘What about shouting at a female colleague in office? Is that harassment too?’

In reciprocation—as everyone in a mature debate would agree—the responsibility of getting the vocabulary and meaning right in conversations at the workplace falls equally on women. We also routinely comment on shirts, shoes, clothes or haircuts of male colleagues. While the Act only (and unfortunately) protects women, yet the casualty is casual banter at the workplace—so whoever initiates it will need to correct himself or herself.

It’s clear thatexpletives which were being liberally used at some workplaces under the excuses of creative gush and expressionist freedom with artistic endorsement by movies like Delhi Belly and Omkara (I even remember writing an article called the Blue Thesaurus) will now be strangled before they make a noise. Rightly so. Who wants an essay to be called a s***** piece of work or a project to be called f*** nice? Since we will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, calling colleagues (of the opposite sex): baby, baba, darling, sweetheart will go out of the office door too. Girls will no longer be called “chicks" (thankfully) but we must also stop calling men “dudes".

Since I write on fashion, I realize with some degree of alarm that my constant comments on people’s clothes will need to go through a security check now. ‘Sexy shirt’ I mutter without even blinking. ‘Arre, why don’t you tuck in your top for better form?’ I would say to a female colleague even when I am not asked. And, worse: ‘Those trousers make you look like a wasted yoga teacher,’ (I said to a male colleague once, well, jokingly, but ouch). Not right anymore.

I have to end here for I urgently need to ask around for a crash course on how to compliment (or critique) my male colleagues without inviting disciplinary action for “personal" comments.

This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words. Shefalee Vasudev is the author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion Articles, videos and blogs at Livemint.com

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