The difficulty of dealing with groping

Man grabbing a woman's arm at the watercooler

Office groping is back in the headlines. But it's a difficult subject to talk about and even define.

A hand on a colleague's shoulder, perhaps a squeeze of the arm, a pat on the head.

A brush of the hand over the waist. A pat on the bottom.

There's a spectrum here, most people would probably admit.

At one end you have physical contact that could be construed as a sympathetic gesture.

But repeat the gesture over the course of dozens of working days, in particular contexts, and it's something that could easily be seen as a creepy invasion of personal space.

In the news

Former Lib Dem chief executive Lord Rennard has denied allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards aspiring female MPs.

And Cardinal Keith O'Brien has been accused of inappropriate behaviour towards priests in the 1980s - allegations he contests. Until his resignation on Monday, he was Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric.

Amid the Savile scandal last autumn, comedian Sandi Toksvig said she was she unsurprised by allegations of inappropriate behaviour at the BBC and that she had been groped in the 1980s.

They are not alone, said home affairs editor Mark Easton. "From the 60s until relatively recently, there existed a pervasive attitude that unwanted sexual advances were an irritant rather than a disciplinary matter or a crime."

Deliberately touching a colleague's bottom carries no such ambiguity though. In a British or American workplace it's likely to trigger an investigation and could lead to dismissal.

How victims should respond to groping, how organisations should investigate allegations and even what constitutes groping is all open to debate.

Groping is something serious and overtly sexual whereas there is a wider, and less serious sounding, category dubbed "inappropriate contact" or even just "inappropriate behaviour".

The semantics are important as they help define the debate.

There can be serious non-physical sexual harassment. And for many people, there is innocent touching that cannot be construed as sexual harassment.

To further complicate, there is touching that is sexual harassment but in the eyes of some still does not deserve to be termed "groping".

Addressing the issue can be intensely complicated.

The allegations against Lord Rennard have prompted the Lib Dems to launch two inquiries. The Metropolitan Police is investigating whether criminal acts took place. Lord Rennard, who stepped down as chief executive of the party in 2009, has said the claims are a "total distortion" of his character.

Typing pool in 1970 Offices in the 1960s and 1970s had a different climate

In October, the BBC appointed Dinah Rose QC to help with a review of how it handled sexual harassment.

The Rennard case has again prompted a flurry of debate.

'We never told anyone'

Sue worked in an office with a persistent groper. "The hand goes down my leg. Then up my back. At first I thought I was imagining it."

She was shocked. "He was a really nice man who worked in IT. We all really liked him."

The groping continued. It would only happen in public places like the pub, where she would have had to make a scene to stop it. She then discovered from female colleagues that he did it to all of them. So why did no-one speak out?

"We never thought of telling anyone. We were friends with his wife who also worked in the office. We didn't want to hurt her feelings."

She learnt to move away when he started groping. Several years ago she left the job and as far as she knows, the man is still there. She never felt threatened but finds it hard to understand why gropers do it. "It wasn't a particularly sexual thing. None of us could understand it. I don't think they're trying it on with you."

(Name has been changed)

Once upon a time, fending off groping was almost part of the job for women. Mad Men-style sexism was de rigueur in 1960s offices, says the Independent newspaper's agony aunt Virginia Ironside.

"You were groped uphill and down dale and nobody cared. They'd be twanging your suspender belt as you leant over the waste paper basket."

Things are supposed to have changed. Today the "cheeky" pat on the bottom is considered harassment. Firms have zero tolerance bullying strategies and policies to encourage whistleblowers.

It's hard to measure the scale of the problem. There's a dearth of reliable stats, prompted at least in part by chronic underreporting.

Scarlet Harris, women's equality officer at the Trades Union Congress, says groping is still a "massive problem". It's likely to be underreported as many women decide to "deal with it" rather than report it, she says. "It's a terrible state of affairs if a woman feels she has to ignore it."

And it's a problem that affects many men of course, inappropriately touched by both women and men. The typical case is perceived as being a woman being touched by a man, but increasing numbers of female managers have created plenty of evidence of the reverse.

In all cases, if it's a more senior person doing the touching, the dynamic changes.

Legislation Aim

See Legislation website for more on laws enacted in the UK

Sex Discrimination Act 1975 - now Equality Act 2010

To protect women and men from discrimination on the grounds of sex or marriage - established the Equal Opportunities Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission)

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

To criminalise stalking and bullying in the workplace, and to make employers vicariously liable for harassment claims by employees

Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005

To introduce new definitions of indirect discrimination and harassment, and prohibit discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave

The Everyday Sexism Project launched in April 2012 has collected 20,000 women's stories, of which about 4,000 occurred in the workplace.

One reads: "An arm round my shoulders with the hand resting on my breast or almost cupping my breast (on multiple occasions). I had a senior manager who frequently used to try and do this to all the female staff necessitating a side-step movement to get away. A complaint was made but nothing changed."

Groping on stage

The David Mamet play Oleanna looked at how rapidly things can spiral out of control from the smallest incident.

It caused a storm in the early 1990s over its portrayal of an academic whose career was wrecked after he put his hand on a student's shoulder.

Critic Roger Ebert wrote: "I recall loud arguments breaking out during the intermission and after the play, as the audience spilled out of an off-Broadway theater all worked up over its portrait of... sexual harassment? Or was it self-righteous Political Correctness?"

Another woman wrote: "I had a boss whose trick was to stand behind seated women staff and rest his groin on their shoulder."

Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today, says firms would be stupid to ignore even rumours of groping.

"If you're hearing that you've got a groper on your staff, you would be mad not to take some kind of action."

These days simply talking to someone "man to man" is not acceptable.

Most human resources departments will have procedures to follow in the case of sexual harassment. Fairness must be scrupulously observed for both the alleged victim and perpetrator, says Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

The facts have to be established. Both parties should be talked to. In the case of rumours, a manager should report the case to HR to investigate. It needs to be handled sensitively in order to avoid someone having their character tarnished unfairly, she cautions.

The individual may not realise their behaviour is unacceptable. "The intention doesn't matter though it's the way that someone perceives being touched," says Worman.

Somebody could be doing something they regard as innocuous. The recipient could have a very different view. Third parties could be split down the middle as their judgement is subjective - how would they have felt in the same situation?

Objective standards are hard to come by.

From catcalls to 'Eve teasing'


From whistling to catcalling and even groping, street harassment is an everyday reality for many women around the world. But now a new wave of feminist groups are organising to stop it.

At the forefront is the international Hollaback! campaign group. They're in a long tradition - going back to the 1970s Reclaim the Night movement - of trying to make the streets safer for women. Much has been done, in the West at least, to deal with workplace harassment, but the streets remain a different proposition.

Street harassment occurs because our society has always allowed it and dismissed the behaviour as "men being men", says activist and filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West.

And it's difficult to distinguish which men simply shout and which ones may use catcalls as a gateway to violence or sexual aggression.

A squeeze of the shoulder might be innocent. But any form of touching between colleagues can, in theory, trigger an assault charge, says Andrew Lilley, employment law partner at Travers Smith.

Workplace cases are normally settled through civil law. An employment tribunal is often quicker and less daunting for victims than involving the police, Lilley says.

The context will be important. But motive - for example to say it was a friendly gesture - is not necessarily a defence.

The only way to ever be sure is not to touch other employees, Lilley says. Gwyther agrees. "Touching someone can be done with the best of intentions. But you've got to be incredibly careful."

Ironside feels the debate has become unbalanced. "Endless fondling and horrible remarks are obviously ghastly." But the pat on the bottom or hand on the knee that would happen in offices was usually banter rather than something sexual, she argues.

"It's not harmful or violent. It's frankly irritating."

For colleagues to avoid touching each other would be sad though, she argues. "Sometimes you want a touch or someone to press your hand if you're feeling low. Zero touching is a very creepy development."

Harris disagrees.

"As a rule of thumb, don't touch anyone at all is a good one to work by."

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Here is a selection of your coments.

I once temped for two different men at two different places who used the same technique. They would make sure that when they were sitting beside me, talking about work or dictating something to me, that their wheeled chairs would slowly get closer and closer until their thigh was pressed up against mine. I would try to wheel my own chair away a bit each time but they would then gradually do it again until there was no space left for me to wheel myself into. I always felt very vulnerable and as a junior, temporary member of staff, did not feel able to say anything. In both cases, they were "happily" married men.

Psyche, Bedford

I think a lot of older men don't realise times have changed, but if you point out to them that they've stepped over the line they get it quickly, even if there is a bit of grumbling about political correctness. One approach is to say "I don't want to be in a position where I have to start avoiding you" - that puts the onus back on them and gives them food for reflection. I've never know that to fail and it avoids fuss and drama with HR departments.


I don't think you can say "no touch". I work in an office where many people will be locked into a screen, with headphones on - either music or conference call and the only to get attention is to tap on shoulder or arm (else throw something at them). If you work in a loud environment might be the only way to get attention. There are also vast cultural differences. While working in the middle east another bloke took my hand to take me somewhere. I wondered what was going on, but once you realise that's what they do and it is a friendly gesture you go with it.


There is a danger to the "never touch" perspective that we end up viewing all touch as would-be sexual. I volunteered with a wonderful community of people some of who had learning disabilities, and the director would make sure to hold everyone's hand while talking to them. This builds a profound connection, and especially in the case of marginalised people, affirms their presence and importance. I found it startling at first but realised that this reaction came from my own prejudices rather than something inherently problematic about touch.

Mark Calder, Insch, Aberdeenshire

I got a call at work once to say that my grandfather had died. My boss was really kind to me and very sympathetic and he didn't need to touch me to show it.

JS, Manchester

I worked as the "copy girl" for a successful multinational company in London in the early 80's. Sexual harrassment by men was standard, but women were often complicit. Affairs between directors and their personal secretaries were the norm, and almost seen as a badge of honour. I was only touched inappropriately once - a boisterous, heavy-drinking and probably lonely salesman ran his finger down my back. I turned and said "don't ever do that to me again" in such a voice that he (nor anyone else) ever did. By making my position clear I was able to have friendly relationships with male colleagues who knew they would be wasting their time if they tried it on with me. But I was considered a bit of a prude for taking this stand!

Miranda Puttock, Reading

How different it is where I live. Here in Spain where a hand shake, kiss or straight hug is a "hello" and touching is part of an ordinary conversation.

Martin Watts, Mallorca

I had my backside slapped in front of our entire office as I bent at the watercooler. When I mentioned this to our head office I was told this was 'just what that office was like' and would be so until the people in question left. Luckily I left first. There was no 'disciplinary hearing' or 'dismissal' in my case. I was practically met with derision for even bring it up.

Danielle S, London

A male colleague once blew on the back of my neck whilst I was carrying items in both hands, and I had been unaware of him behind me. He had been previously warned by myself, other colleagues and even staff in our local bar to keep his hands off me! Despite all this I felt unable to launch a formal complaint. I'm really not sure why. I think I felt that it was my fault for being uncomfortable with his contact and that my emotional response to his not overtly sexual touches, was not grounds for a legitimate complaint. Where do we draw the line? I left my job because of this individual and the way he made me feel, but did not complain.

Elaine, Bourne

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