Calling a coworker a ‘lady’ can land you in hot water

Ladylike behavior? A student recently asked me if using the term “lady” could be considered sexual harassment. Yes! Under certain conditions, it could get you into a lot of trouble.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment takes on many forms.

Not all forms of sexual harassment are overt. Image via Flickr user wonderlane.

Remember that there are two types of harassment. The first, Quid Pro Quo harassment, happens when sexual behavior is a condition of some workplace decision, such as getting a job or promotion, avoiding a disciplinary action or being fired. The second, Hostile Work Environment, means that the workplace has become so uncomfortable that a worker has difficulty doing his or her job. It’s similar to bullying in the workplace. Not everyone has the same tolerance for behaviors such as tasteless jokes that are sexual or racial in nature, workplace pranks, horseplay and practical jokes.

When a coworker feels that workplace behavior has gone too far and the employee is uncomfortable, then the behavior constitutes harassment. Whether the person making the joke meant it to be harassing doesn’t matter. When you think about it, bullies often defend their behavior by saying, “It was just a joke. It didn’t mean anything.” The same thing can happen in workplace harassment.

Calling Someone a ‘Lady’

I felt I had to get that out of the way before I handled the term “lady”. The implications of using this particular term depend on the context and previous history. If it’s a single incident, sexual harassment hasn’t occurred. Calling a woman of a certain age…like me…. “lady”, makes some sensitive women feel old and they don’t like it. If I tell you I don’t like it and you quit, it’s not harassment. If you keep calling me “lady” just to bug me, it can turn into hostile work environment harassment because it’s directed to me based on my gender… and age…. and it bugs me.

If you’re calling a male coworker “lady” because you’re bringing attention to some behavior or characteristic that you don’t consider masculine, that would be hostile work environment too. For example, if a coworker doesn’t like sports and doesn’t participate in a discussion of the NCAA playoffs, and you say “that’s because the lady doesn’t like sports,” he has a pretty good claim of harassment.

The bottom line? Realize that people’s perceptions of labels may be different from yours, and to quote a wise co-worker of mine, “Perception is reality.”

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Susan Verhulst

Susan Verhulst is a Professor of Management at Des Moines Area Community College. She holds Professional in Human Resources Certification and SHRM-CP designations, as well as an MBA from Drake University.

1 Response

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