No Shakes Please, We’re British: Determining Appropriate Conduct in the Workplace

handshake

The workplace is undeniably changed following the rise of the #MeToo movement. Whether it is out of an increased consciousness, genuine decency, or a misguided sense of paranoia, employers and employees everywhere are more aware of their actions, and usually giving second thought to whether their workplace interactions are appropriate.

Yet there is no universal definition of what is ‘appropriate.’ This leaves many employers questioning what sort of workplace rules are required to truly safeguard workers. While certain behaviours are clearly never acceptable in the workplace, there may be a new culprit on the no-no list: handshakes.

Physical contact in the workplace.

In a recent survey from the UK job board TotalJobs, 76% of workers feel that physical contact should be reduced in the workplace, while 42% of those surveyed said it should be banned outright. The survey found that overall, people are more comfortable speaking up following the #MeToo movement about what does and does not make them uncomfortable, and are less afraid to be vocal about it.

The same survey also showed that 41% of men greet women differently so as not to make them uncomfortable, and 28% consciously change how they greet women so that it is not interpreted as sexual harassment. While this may quickly be dismissed by some as a statement on today’s overarching political correctness, it also speaks volumes about our past attitudes – that it was previously normal for male workers to greet their female colleagues differently, or even in a sexualized manner, without a second thought.

So what does all of this really mean for today’s workplace?

The good news is that, in large part thanks to those brave enough to share their stories, the workplace has moved a long way towards real gender equality. #MeToo is not just a frivolous hashtag – every single individual who uses it to share their story is bravely coming forward with their personal history of sexual harassment/assault, a story they may never have shared until recently. A generation ago, workplace sexual harassment was so commonplace that it was sadly considered an accepted norm, with little recourse. In the 1980 film 9 to 5 for example, boss Dabney Coleman is made out to be the bad guy, but his lewd objectification of assistant Dolly Parton is played largely for laughs. Now, thanks to an increased social consciousness, workers everywhere are saying they will no longer simply accept feeling uncomfortable or objectified simply because of their gender.

Yet the answer to eliminating workplace sexual harassment may not be as simple as ending all physical contact, especially if that contact is relatively innocuous and strictly for the purposes of conducting business. In Ontario, the definition of ‘workplace sexual harassment’ in the Occupational Health and Safety Act includes: “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” Save for extreme circumstances, it would be hard pressed to find a situation where a handshake could be deemed vexatious. Similarly, an employee making a harassment claim simply because they did not like someone’s handshake may not receive much sympathy, especially if they had not made it clear that they did not wish to be touched.

However, in a pointed take on the UK study, Toronto Star entertainment columnist Vinay Menon made a darkly satirical point – in the case of Harvey Weinstein for example, the majority of his predatory activities with actresses likely began with a simple handshake as they nervously arrived at his office or hotel room for the sole purpose of reading for a part. Perpetrators such as Weinstein may begin their encounters with a seemingly innocuous handshake, but may use that gesture as a way of building trust as they harbour far more sinister activities in mind.

How we can help.

Employers have the ultimate deciding power to determine what conduct is, and what conduct is not appropriate for their workplace. Well-written policies allow an employer to set the ground rules, and training on said policies will help ensure they are understood and followed across the workforce. While an outright ban on all physical contact may feel draconian, guidelines on appropriate interactions and any associated training required may help ensure that your workplace remains comfortable for everyone involved. Contact us today so that we can help you ensure your policies are your best protection.

For employees, workplace harassment is never okay, and no one should be made to feel uncomfortable in silence. But a simple handshake may not be known to be unwelcome unless your feelings are clearly expressed ahead of time. A handshake alone may not qualify as harassment, but having your known wishes ignored may be considered vexatious conduct that is known to be unwelcome.

Ultimately, nobody should feel uncomfortable in the workplace and restricted as though they have no other choice. If you feel that you may be harassed at work, contact us today so that we can work with you to assess the situation, and examine all your potential options for how to make things right.

Shaun Bernstein

My experience has taught me the beauty of being able to work fluidly on both sides of employment law. For example, it can be deeply rewarding helping a recently terminated employee achieve a fair settlement that recognizes their contributions to the company, and the situation they have found themselves in. But it is equally as rewarding to be able to help that employer straighten out issues as or even before they arise, and hopefully preventing the need for that employee to have called us in the first place.

I previously ran a blog explaining employment law issues to a wide audience, and am incredibly proud to have twice won Clawbies (Canadian Law Blog Awards) for Best New Law Blog and Best Practitioner Blog.