Just when you thought it was safe to flirt at the office…

Sexual harassment seems to be an issue that won't go away. It keeps turning up again and again — in the media, in the courts, in business of all types and in the public sector.

The confusion persists as well. Just what IS sexual harassment? Can flirting or asking for a date land you in court? Can someone sue for a “cheesecake” photo in your office? What kind of language is OK to use and what kind is taboo? Is it acceptable to give someone a friendly pat on the back? The list of questions is endless.

The issue of sexual harassment is fraught with ambiguity. It's emotionally loaded because it is so personal and so intimate, involving both sex and power. Many people have very strong feelings about it — it is not a subject about which anyone feels neutral or apathetic. Sexual harassment affects people in a very powerful way, both emotionally and professionally, and they sometimes carry psychic wounds for years after the event(s). Others who've witnessed sexual harassment in their work environment (or other surroundings) also have definite opinions about the issue. And those who have been accused of sexual harassment have strong feelings as well, ranging from anger to confusion to guilt. And people who think they've neither experienced nor witnessed sexual harassment express bafflement about what all the fuss is about.

These are confusing and challenging times for women and men in the workplace. Norms about gender — appropriate behavior are changing, workforce demographics are shifting and businesses are struggling with how to come to terms with all the implications of these changes.

In the interest of shedding a little light in an area that seems very gray to people, a few solid facts might help.

Many people think that sexual harassment is something that men do to women. FACT: 90 percent of sexual harassment is male to female; 5 percent is female to male; 4 percent is male to male; and 1 percent is female to female. Sexual harassment is not just a “woman's problem.” It's everyone's problem.

Men and women perceive sexual advances differently. FACT: In a recent study which asked both men and women how they would feel if someone of the opposite gender made sexual advances toward them, 75 percent of men said they would be flattered, while only 15 percent said they would be offended. Among the women surveyed, 75 percent said they would be offended. Clearly, men and women can perceive the same act very differently.

Who is most likely to experience sexual harassment? FACT: “Pioneers” — women who enter predominantly male fields, and males who enter predominantly female fields — have the highest probability of encountering sexual harassment at work. There are not significant differences in the incidence of harassment between white-collar and blue-collar professions. Among women reporting sexual harassment, the majority are between the ages of 23 and 35.

Are there different types of sexual harassment? FACT: According to federal and state law, there are two types: (1) Quid Pro Quo, in which the harasser makes his or her demands for sexual favors a condition of employment or benefits (e.g. promotions, raises, better working conditions, etc.). Threats of retaliation against the victim are also included in this type of harassment. (2) Hostile Work Environment, in which unwelcome sexual demands, behavior, comments, jokes, posters and pictures/photos of a sexual nature create an “offensive, hostile, oppressive and intimidating workplace” which “unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance.”

How can people stop sexual harassment? FACT: About 80 percent of harassment is unintentional, and pointing out to the harasser that the behavior or situation is unwelcome and uncomfortable usually stops it. Very often, the harasser may have good intentions in paying a compliment to someone, but the recipient does not accept the comment or compliment in a positive manner. There is a gap between intent and impact. Telling people in clear, firm language how you want to be treated and what kind of behavior is unacceptable is the best way to protect yourself from harassment. Confronting the unwanted behavior as soon as possible is the best way to stop any escalation of the situation.

How can you protect yourself from accusations of sexual harassment? FACT: (1) Treat people as you want them to treat you and not as you think they want to be treated. When in doubt, ask. (2) Ask yourself if there is equal initiation and participation during the interaction between you and other people. (3) Do not violate someone else's “personal space” without asking their permission — that is, do not touch someone or stand too close without asking if it's OK with them, unless the person is a close friend and you are both clear and comfortable with the terms of the relationship. (4) Remember that relationships can change over time. Behavior that may have been OK at one time can become not OK if the relationship changes. When in doubt, check it out by asking the other person involved. (5) Play it safe by complimenting people on their work, not their appearance. People always like to know that others recognize they're doing a good job, and many women, in particular, often feel that their professional accomplishments are underrecognized, while their clothing or their bodies are overrecognized.

Why are people reluctant to talk about sexual harassment? FACT: Often people are afraid someone will brand them as a troublemaker, and they don't want to rock the boat for fear that it will hurt their career prospects within the company. Or they just don't know how to deal with the situation and don't know to whom they can turn for help. They may feel guilty or ashamed about the harassment, even going so far as to blame themselves. The harasser may be a powerful person in the organization, and the victim may need their support or approval for career advancement. The victim may also fear retaliation. They may fear blame or ridicule. There are many reasons why people are reluctant to come forward to stop sexual harassment.

How can businesses and organizations best address the complex nature of sexual harassment? FACT: Education and prevention are the critical keys to eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace. Many excellent training videos, workshops, books and other resource materials are available on the subject. And there are consultants who specialize in sexual harassment training whose job it is to help companies stay out of legal trouble.

Every organization should have a clear, firm policy statement outlining management's strong position on the issue. Regular training programs for both managers and supervisors, as well as for employees, can go a long way toward clearing up a lot of confusion about sexual harassment.

Organizations should also have designated systems and procedures for handling complaints and investigations. It is critical that those resource people designated as responsible for these systems of procedures be highly trusted by both management and employees.

And finally, management must be willing to take action if and when they discover sexual harassment in their organization. Without a firm commitment to take swift action, management will lose credibility with employees and leave the company open to an expensive lawsuit.

Above all, everyone within the organization must work to keep the lines of communication open and build trust at all levels, so that employees and managers alike can air differences, clarify confusions and make their place of business a location where everyone feels safe, supported and productive.

B.J. Gallagher is a Los Angeles consultant, author and seminar leader, specializing in diversity, gender issues in the workplace and sexual harassment. Her best-selling diversity book, A Peacock in the Land of Penguins, is published in 19 languages worldwide. Her recent book on personal accountability is Who Are “They” Anyway? Visit www.peacockproductions.com.