Appropriate behaviour in work spaces is being widely discussed these days. Are you sensitised on this?

Most of us, both men and women, have been affected in some measure by the recent conversations, in the media and outside, relating to gender-based violence and sexual harassment. The events that have brought about these issues vary widely in terms of context but some of them have thrown into focus the difficult dynamics of workplace relationships. The “Vishaka guidelines” on sexual harassment in the workplace may provide institutional and legal recourse, but they still depend on someone making a complaint and someone taking action on the basis of it.

Understanding harassment

Harassment is about unwanted attention, and often comes from exploitation of an unequal relationship, where one person has more power (physical, political, social, economic, etc.). It’s a deliberate crossing of a personal boundary. While it is crucial that we recognise and deal with this kind of violation, we need to also learn how to set and defend boundaries in different contexts. Sexual harassment is of course an extreme form of boundary violation, but there are many situations that we sometimes feel uncomfortable with but cannot analyse well enough to give it a name. There is also a class of behaviour that we see often enough to think of as “normal” and, worse, accept as something we have to put up with if we want to get ahead. Discussions about “appropriate” behaviour at work are rarely discussed in overt terms, and we go through college without learning how to handle these situations until we have an unpleasant encounter ourselves.

In professional contexts, we meet a variety of people and are required to work in sometimes tightly knit teams for extended periods. In college too, we often have group work or spend long hours with classmates in laboratories or classrooms for projects. We have bosses at work, teachers in college, seniors and juniors… all roles and positions with varying amounts of power.

Inside the classroom, the roles are clear and usually, so are the expectations. In the office too, as long as conversations remain focused on work and professional responsibilities, the lines are clear. But sometimes there are contexts where a professional or collegial camaraderie gives way to friendly banter, and suddenly, things begin to get personal.

Peers and others

With peers, this transition from the professional to the personal may be acceptable and even welcome. After all, these are the spaces within which we find friends and form strong bonds, often for life.

With peers, it should be possible to negotiate the terms of the relationship on an equal footing. Where the relationship is unequal, however, such a negotiation can be difficult. This is not to say that one can’t form good personal relationships with people who are at a different level in an institutional hierarchy. But it is important to keep the professional and personal aspects of the relationships separate — and that is easier said than done.

Marking professional boundaries is extremely important if work is to get done in an efficient manner. If you are working on a group project, and you have friends in the group who keep shirking their share of the work, you may sometimes be under pressure or even be tempted to overlook their lack of responsibility, while not doing the same for another group member.

Conversely, if you are uncompromising in your demand that your friends do their bit, you may risk damaging the friendship. In this case, they are using their “social power” to influence you.

Setting clear rules

Good personal equations do lend a lot of energy to work, whether it is in college or on the job. They make the task fun and also help ease tensions when there are challenges to be met. However, one has to develop a sensitivity — if these dynamics start interfering with one’s judgments at work. You can learn to do this while in college, by setting clear ground rules when working on projects with friends. It is entirely possible to do this politely and assertively, without getting unpleasant or overbearing.

To start with, collaboratively establish ground rules for everyone to follow in such cases, getting everyone to agree that these will apply to all equally during the assignment. During project meetings, keep the conversation focused on the work at hand, leaving the jokes and chatter for later. Demarcating time and spaces for the professional and personal also helps keep interactions within those boundaries. Holding meetings in a classroom or a common space rather than in someone’s home also helps keep it at a professional level.

Of course, there will always be spaces that are ambiguous — neither strictly work nor really play — and it is in these areas where the marking and respecting of boundaries can be tricky. We cannot control another person’s behaviour, but if we have been clear about drawing our own lines between the personal and professional, we will know why we feel uncomfortable when we do, and maybe, we will know what to do about it.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is the editor of Teacher Plus. Website: www.teacherplus.org. Email: Usha.raman@gmail.com