When I visited the theater a few evenings ago, I stood with a small group of friends when a man came to accompany us. His shoulders were bent and his step heavy as he strode across the foyer, frustration flowing from every pore.
& # 39; I no longer understand the rules, & # 39; he confessed. & # 39; Everything I say seems to upset people. I told someone at work that she had nice shoes and was warned that it was inappropriate. & # 39;
There was a lot of head shaking and muttering of sympathy as the group – especially the women – mocked the madness of banning compliments for beautiful shoes.
I decided to offer him my standard answer.
Mail on Sunday sports editor Alison Kervin said she is petrified & # 39; is for her son George, 18, after watching a new BBC documentary about harassment in the workplace
& # 39; It's easy, & # 39; I said. & # 39; You have to ask yourself – would I say this to a rather frightening cellmate in prison? If not, do not say it to a woman in a professional environment. & # 39;
It is not a very scientific answer, but because few people are clear about the limits of what is appropriate, it works. Or rather, I thought it did.
Because this week I have looked at a new BBC documentary that will be screened this week, in which exactly this situation between men and women in the workplace is examined, my tried and tested advice seems no longer so adequate.
In fact, it petrified me for my 18-year-old son, who has yet to enter the work world.
In the program 20 young adults between 18 and 30 are brought together to see if they understand the rules of behavior in the workplace. For two days they watch a specially written drama that tells the story of the working relationship between a man and a woman.
The woman is Cat, who arrives on her first day and gets a lot of attention from the man, Ryan, who describes herself as her "mentor & # 39 ;. Both look good and the workplace is a bar – very relaxed, music, drinks are consumed – but it is still work.
And from the moment they meet, Ryan can not resist making subtle digs with Cat. In her attempts to teach her to use software for inventory, he says: & # 39; When they told me that the new person in attendance needed help with the stock software, I thought: & # 39; What did you use her for? & # 39; But after I see you working, I understand. & # 39;
He leans a little too close over her shoulder to the computer and compliments Cat with her perfume.
Leaning too closely: in the documentary, we see barmanager Ryan leaning over the shoulder of his new colleague, fellow manager Cat, while he shows her how to use the inventory software on the computer. Is he too close?
HOW THE MENS SEE IT: & # 39; He is too close, he leans over her shoulder. But she seems to have no problem with it. & # 39;
HOW THE WOMEN SEE IT: I was shocked that Cat did not have the courage to identify the problem and call it right away. & # 39;
THE VERDICT OF THE LAWYER: & # 39; Ryan has sent an SMS to friends about the & # 39; fit new duty manager & # 39; and wrote: & # 39; She wants it, she just does not know yet.
Absolute sexual harassment. & # 39;
She never tells Ryan about her discomfort. But he is so busy flirting that he does not teach her how to use the software, but chooses to do the job herself.
When Cat tries to intervene to complete the inventory order, he rejects her efforts, noting that the teamwork … brains and beauty & # 39; was, which reduced her contribution to looking beautiful. He clearly pushes his luck, but does he break the law?
The drama continues two weeks later, while the couple enjoy drinks after work on a Friday night and dance in a club. Cat, a little worse for wear, is sick and when Ryan checks her, he puts his hand on her shoulder and then slides it to her waist. She takes his hand away and walks up the dance floor.
But the core of the story is set in the next week when Cat, who is not yet familiar with the software, messes up a drink order. Ryan comforts her by asking her to have a drink and goes with her to a taxi home. But he gets off at her stop and comes in for a kiss – a kiss that Cat rejects.
The program also observes the group of 20 young people watching the drama and revealing how divided they are in their opinions about what is happening.
Some polish the entire chain of events as little more than "banter", while others agree that the woman should have made her discomfort clearer. At the other end of the spectrum, some – especially women – feel that the behavior of the man is completely confused.
But the most chilling part of the whole thing – the part that frightened me for my son and that will undoubtedly shock every parent – is the final verdict of the barrister introduced by the program.
She is unambiguous. There is no ambiguity in any of the scenarios, she argues. Each may be interpreted by law as sexual harassment, defined in the statutes as any undesirable behavior that intends to violate one's dignity.
Take every scenario in turn and the shocking reality of this is clear.
Paying a compliment: Cat looks surprised when Ryan compliments her with her perfume. Was it flirtatious or friendly?
HOW THE MENS SEE IT: & # 39; If someone compliments you with your scent, that's fine. He just said, "That's pretty perfume." & # 39;
HOW THE WOMEN SEE IT:If one of my colleagues had complimented my perfume, I would not have felt offended. If she found it offensive, she should have said something. & # 39;
THE VERDICT OF THE LAWYER: De The odor comment is sexual harassment. For example, would he tell a man that you have beautiful perfume?
& # 39; If not, then it is likely that it is related to sex. & # 39;
Ryan's flirty, discarded comment against Cat & # 39; & # 39; brains and beauty & # 39; – is sexual intimidation. Leaning too close to Kat, touching her waist, and commenting on her perfume can also potentially lead to a tribunal. All these things, the barrister points out, violates her dignity and as such can constitute an intimidation case.
As I watched the show with a growing sense of discomfort, I thought of the man in the theater who had complimented a colleague's shoes. It turned out that the woman was right: his approval, even though he was friendly and indecent, was unprofessional and possibly illegal.
As someone who started her career in the enchanting, gripping nineties, I am very happy that the world of work has been transformed. For years, women were silent about all possible abuses, so that they could keep their careers on track. That was clearly wrong.
But if it has improved for female employees, there is also more confusion, especially for men.
How should men and women deal with each other and what kind of world do we want to see in the future? Will it be a flawed insult to praise a new dress, a suit, a nice tie?
Countless relationships, happy marriages and strong families have begun in the workplace. A study from 2014 even suggested that 30 percent of the relationships begin there. Should these be banned?
And is not it a little humiliating to suggest that women, who have put men in their place for centuries, are unable to stand up for themselves from time to time?
I can not help but feel that there is something Orwellian in the way we seem determined to punish and punish not only sexism and bullying, but also normal human behavior.
Like the mother of a son who has just left home, the serious consequences of an innocent mistake now seem terrifyingly real.
I hope, like any parent, that George will meet the woman of his dreams, lead a fantastic social life and have a good professional relationship with men and women in whatever career he chooses.
But I now understand the harsh reality of what he and millions of other young men come across – not just on distant American university campuses, or high-tech start-ups & # 39; in trendy parts of London or Manchester, but increasingly in the daily world.
A few colleagues can tell terrifying stories.
One has a son, Richard, 21 years old, who works for a bank in London and received a warning because he simply had a door open to a colleague – a chivalry or, at the very least, basic manners in a different generation .
Touching the back: Cat is sick during drinking and dancing after work. Ryan checks that everything is in order, puts his hand on her shoulder and slides him to her waist. She goes away but does not say anything
HOW THE MENS SEE IT: I do not think it was very fair to say that moving was a clear sign that she said no. & # 39;
HOW THE WOMEN SEE IT: Ryan was sexually harassed by Cat and tried to make her drink a lot. It seemed that he had only one motive and that was to get her into bed. & # 39;
THE VERDICT OF THE LAWYER: & # 39; Sexual harassment. With every form of physical contact at work – except shaking hands – you get into trouble. & # 39;
Richard said: "I saw her walking down the corridor, so I waited and said: & # 39; After you & # 39 ;, and let her go first. Then I went after her and a man came after me. & # 39;
Surprisingly, the woman complained to the bank's human resources department that his actions amounted to sexism.
Richard was called to meet with HR officials, who told him that opening the door for his colleague had her & infantised & # 39; and her & # 39; less & # 39; had it felt.
& # 39; It was all very frightening, & # 39; Richard continued. & # 39; I thought I would lose my job. I received a letter confirming the warning and saying that if I would open the door only to black men or only to white men, it would be racist, so it was sexist that I had the door only for the woman.
I told them that I would also keep the door for a man, but they said that I had not done so in this case – I had treated the woman differently. I have learned a difficult lesson. & # 39;
Carl, 28, a retail manager in Manchester, must have learned a similar lesson. A few years ago, his store got extra staff for the Christmas rush. The first was a woman from the beginning of 20.
& # 39; It is always hectic and full of December & # 39 ;, recognizes Carl. We're a strong team anyway, but with the music in the store and the increase in the shoppers, the camaraderie between us can be described as casual, fun and tight. Our guards were down, I think. & # 39;
Carl was busy with the young woman in the changing rooms, moving rails of clothes and emptying boxes, and holding out his hand to prevent her from falling back when she stumbled.
I'm quite a sensitive person, & # 39; recognizes Carl. Not in a sexually aggressive way, but without thinking I will put my hand on someone's shoulder or arm to emphasize a point. I do it with my male friends and platonic female friends.
& # 39; I did not follow the reaction of my colleague at the time, although I can see backward that they froze. But I put that down on her as the new girl, instead of thinking that I was not in line at all. & # 39;
Making a pass: after work they drink a drink in the bar and share a taxi home. At Cat & # 39; s stop Ryan gets out and sends the driver away. He then tries to kiss Cat and says: & # 39; I thought I got signals. & # 39; She apologizes and leaves
HOW THE MENS SEE IT: & # 39; She should not be offended. They work in a bar. He tried to make a move. It could be more messy. & # 39;
HOW THE WOMEN SEE IT: & # 39; The move to Cat was sexual harassment. I do not see how it is not. & # 39;
THE VERDICT OF THE LAWYER: & # 39; If we could establish that it was related to his work – that he acted in the course of his employment – then that is intimidation.
Two weeks later, to his horror, he discovered that she had reported to him and two other employees for inappropriate behavior.
& # 39; I was speechless, & # 39; said Carl. & # 39; I did not know how to respond. & # 39;
Carl said that it's me & # 39; sharp & # 39; had drawn.
I really thought about who I was in the neighborhood of my colleagues, and especially of her. But I really could not see how my behavior could be misinterpreted. It is the first time that accusations have ever been made against me.
& # 39; I then had a few sleepless nights. Since then, the episode has made me rethink what normal behavior is between adults. Is a friendly gesture not allowed?
Well, no – like the BBC drama highlights. Working lives must not be compromised or undermined by unwanted attention, as the lawyer explains on the screen. The rules are the rules.
Do not get me wrong, misogyny can have a devastating effect and must be eradicated.
Take the case of Helen, a shocking case from practice, explored by the show. She says: & # 39;[My male colleagues] talked about the size of my breasts. They talked pretty openly about my vagina. They took a picture of me when I slept, grabbed an ejaculating penis in my face, placed it on Facebook and placed it on the social media page of the company.
I suppose I did pretty well. I did not feel able to stand up for myself. I knew it was wrong – my instinct told me – but I did not know what to do with it. That was the hardest part. & # 39;
Helen took them to a tribunal and won her case, plus £ 10,000 as compensation. But opposing them in the tribunal was not easy.
It was insinuated that it was desirable that I liked it and had no problem with it. I felt that I could not be myself anymore because I am naturally warm and smiley. Then you think: do I lead someone by just being myself? & # 39;
What kind of world do we want … will it be a flawed insult to praise a new dress, a suit, a nice tie?
Yet the program also highlights the terrible consequences that a culture of accusation can have, namely the real case of Keith, a coordinator in a hospital, who was wrongly accused of sexual harassment at work.
Keith, who is openly homosexual, describes how the accusations arose after he failed to exchange a service with a colleague. "He accused me of having touched his back fourteen times … to say that he had red, sexy lips.
"He accused me of taking care of him in the way that I would cook food and bring food for him.
& # 39; I was totally stunned by all these accusations. There was an internal investigation. The accusations proved unfounded and I was acquitted of all accusations.
I have never thought in a million years that anyone could be so cruel, cruel, or vindictive.
I have never drunk before, but I noticed that I drank a bottle of vodka every day to take medication myself. I was diagnosed with stress-related type 2 diabetes. & # 39;
No wonder the men look sheepish when this revealing experiment comes to an end.
I'll never talk to one of the women again, just in case I say something wrong, "says one.
I do not want to upset anyone, but I do not know how … & # 39;
And it is not only those who have left behind questions. Every family in the country has some thinking to do.
- Is this sexual harassment? is now available to view on BBC Three on iPlayer and will be broadcast on Tuesday at 10.45 am on BBC One.