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Student ponders impact of workplace harassment

By Amy Dickinson, Tribune Content Agency on

Dear Amy: I am currently a first semester student at a highly selective professional school. Because of the public nature of our future occupation(s), as students we are insanely private in terms of our personal conduct and on social media. Still, friendships have developed within the group.

Seven of us are completing an externship together, and I have bonded with a male colleague who shares a similar schedule. Sometimes, our conversation could be considered casual flirtation, but this is generally harmless and friendly banter.

Recently, we discussed the Weinstein scandal during lunch break, and he vocalized the fear that being a straight male in a public profession will affect his personal life. He emphasized that he fears intentions or comments may be misinterpreted in ways that could harm his career.

Part of me wonders if he hasn't initiated more overt flirtation with me due to his fear of sexual harassment or sacrificing our professional relationship. I have never actively dated before, and this adds another dimension for me; I feel this raises the stakes.

How can I value his reservations, express my interest, and make my friend feel comfortable if he is not interested? In this case, how can I make the first move without being viewed as aggressive or at the least unprofessional?

-- Need Advice

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Dear Need Advice: Your colleague's reservations about appropriate workplace behavior are intriguing.

I would answer his concerns by letting him know that it is actually easy to avoid harassment charges. I think back to the scores of men I have worked for and alongside in four decades of working in various professions. Almost every single one of them managed not to harass women, and I don't think it was a hugely heavy lift. They simply respected colleagues' abilities and autonomy, didn't engage in sexual banter, and didn't behave in a sexual way, a physically threatening manner, or an inappropriate fashion. I developed many important and abiding relationships and friendships with these colleagues that extended beyond the workplace.

Your colleague's choice to act threatened, as if he is practicing his own victimhood, is curious -- and also unappealing (at least to me).

Harassment is an assertion of power. If you and your colleague are on the same level professionally, you could gauge his possible personal interest by asking if he'd like to have coffee sometime, before or after work. If he hesitates or declines -- for any reason -- then you will respect his choice, not press the matter, and continue to enjoy your professional relationship.

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