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Where does the joke end and the harassment begin? asks Jennie Bristow

A bit of harmless office fun?

John Wratten, a social worker, is currently involved in a dispute about his redundancy from Kent County Council in 1996. Nothing too unusual about that. But what happened to John Wratten when he first came to blows with the council, two years before he was finally made redundant, should sound a warning to anybody who works in the atmosphere of daily office politics.

In September 1994 a disciplinary hearing within Kent County Council found John Wratten guilty of sexual harassment. He was given a final written warning and redeployed to a different office. Many would say that he got off lightly. The council 'normally regards' sexual harassment as gross misconduct, which can result in summary dismissal without notice or pay in lieu of notice.

There is no doubt that John Wratten did it. In the disciplinary hearing, he admitted to pinging the bra strap of one female employee, touching another female employee above the knee and freely making comments about his female colleagues' dress and appearance. He denied two charges: of poking a woman in the nipples, and of smacking a woman on the bottom.

In the terms laid down by John Wratten's own union, the 1.4 million-strong Unison, 'physical contact, ranging from unnecessary touching through to sexual assault or rape' and 'unwanted or derogatory comments about dress and/or appearance', are highlighted as forms of sexual harassment. John Wratten was a fifty-something male manager, and the women who complained about him were twenty-something and new to the job. A clear case of sexual harassment, you might think: the brute probably got everything he deserved.

But did he? John Wratten's case highlights a real problem with the harassment policies that guide every profession and trade union today. There are no 'clear' cases of sexual harassment, because there are no clear definitions of sexual harassment. And if there are no clear definitions of what sexual harassment actually is, how can anybody be found guilty of it?

The European Union's code of practice on sexual harassment, entitled 'Protecting the Dignity of Women and Men at Work', forms the basis of many policies designed to counteract sexual harassment at work. It states that 'the essential characteristic of sexual harassment is that it is unwanted by the recipient, that it is for each individual to determine what behaviour is acceptable to them and what they regard as offensive'. In other words, the 'essential characteristic' of sexual harassment is precisely the fact that it is not restricted to any specific kind of behaviour.

What counts in harassment policies today is not the behaviour itself, but the way in which this behaviour is interpreted by the person on the receiving end. The code states that 'it is the unwanted nature of the conduct which distinguishes sexual harassment from friendly behaviour, which is welcome and mutual'. 'Working Together to Prevent Harassment', Kent County Council's staff briefing on harassment, puts this point more bluntly: 'What may seem like fun to one person may be quite unpleasant to the person to whom it is directed.' So John Wratten making cracks and pinging bra straps could be either friendly behaviour or sexual harassment, depending on how the person wearing the bra strap and hearing the jokes feels about it.

Talking to John Wratten now, it is clear that he considered his behaviour to be entirely friendly, the kind of innocent 'fooling about' that he says went on all the time in the poky office where four people were expected to work as a team. 'Social work is fairly stressful, and the fooling around bits often go a long way to reducing the stress of the job.' He knows that he is not alone in seeing the importance of light-hearted office relations. 'Funnily enough, I saw a course advertised on introducing humour into the workplace. How pathetic can you get? You have to be told how to make a joke.'

Well, maybe there is good reason for courses telling managers how to make jokes. Because as John Wratten found out in 1994, what he thought were jokes were interpreted by his junior female colleagues as sexual harassment. He claims that his colleagues 'gave as good as they got. That was what the office was like. Once or twice I pinged one colleague's bra strap, she burst out laughing. She took it as funny, the same way as it was intended'.

We have all been there, with irritating managers whose hands get everywhere, and to many women having your bra strap snapped is far from hilarious. Today, however, there is a growing tendency not to deal with the problem directly, by telling him where to go, but to turn instead to a management code of conduct to sort out our office relations for us. None of the three women told John Wratten to his face that his behaviour was offensive. The first that he learned about it was when he was suspended, pending the disciplinary hearing.

John is 55 years old now. He started working for the council in 1971, before sexual harassment policies were invented. And when he gives his version of events that were said to constitute harassment, it is difficult to believe that only gropers engage in this kind of banter with the people in their office.

One of his female colleagues had accused him of teasing her about her clothing. 'She used to wear these long dresses that show an inch or two of petticoat. I just used to say, oh your petticoat's slipping again and things like that. I can't imagine adult people being offended by something as naive as that.' In any case, he explains, the people in his office teased him about his clothes as well. 'I was well known for being pretty awful with my colours and everything, so if I wore something that matched one woman used to say things like, "who got you dressed this morning?".' The very fact that such banal chat can be elevated to the status of a disciplinary offence should make us pause for thought.

John Wratten's explanation of how he committed the sin of touching a woman above the knee was delivered in a similar kind of way: unapologetic, undramatic but slightly bemused. 'She was having problems with colleagues. One day she came in to me just to have a general moan about things.' At this point in the interview, I had my right leg crossed over my left and John said, sheepishly, 'can I?', and slapped me above my right knee to demonstrate.

John continued: 'I said "come on then, go on in there and show that you can do it, that you mean business". That was how it was done. It certainly had nothing else attached to it from my point of view.' But from the point of view of the woman, there clearly was more than friendly encouragement attached to this gesture.

John Wratten cannot understand how behaviour he thought was reciprocal, a two-way jokey relationship, came to be construed as harassment at a later date. 'It just doesn't add up.' And your first reaction, talking to him, is that in order for things to get this far somebody somewhere must be lying.

But not necessarily. John Wratten could be telling the truth and nothing but the truth, yet he would still be guilty of harassment. As Unison's policy on harassment states, 'whether or not the harassment is intentional is irrelevant; the key point to remember is that it is offensive'. Whatever John meant to do, he caused offence so he is guilty.

As for the women who brought the complaints, nobody can say that they were lying. When the EU code on sexual harassment states that 'it is for each individual to determine what behaviour is acceptable to them and what they regard as offensive', it really means that the complainant's interpretation of events can never be questioned. Even if the women who complained about John's behaviour had played along with it at the time, who is to say that they did not find it offensive; even if they did not mind his behaviour at the time, who is to say that they did not perceive it as 'offensive' at a later date? Once you say 'I find this offensive' the discussion is closed, because who else can say what you find offensive?

When everybody with any clout in the workplace, from the European Union to the trade union, agrees that harassment has nothing to do with what you actually do, this shows how the 1990s workforce is perceived. No longer are we competent adults who can be held responsible for the relationships that we form and the things that we do. Instead we are like children, to be told in no uncertain terms that 'I didn't mean it' is no excuse.

Because it is perfectly possible for anybody to be offended by anything, and because anything can be deemed harassment, Unison's evangelical aim 'to eradicate harassment from the workplace and the union' can never be achieved. Indeed as the definition of harassment becomes wider, incorporating more types of office behaviour, cases can only increase. What can be achieved, however, is the sacrifice of a few middle aged men like John Wratten to prove that the policy is working, and the creation of a situation of permanent mistrust where everybody looks over their shoulder all the time, fearful that something might have been taken the wrong way, or wondering whether they should whistle up the code of conduct to protect themselves from their workmates.

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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