A boss wrote ‘xx’ in an email and an employee sued him for sexual harassment—but this nightmare situation was entirely avoidable, experts say

May 18, 2023, 3:57 PM UTC
Typing on keyboard
For managers that are trying to be friendly this scenario is what nightmares are made of.
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An IT worker sued her boss for sexual harassment after she mistook his use of “xx”  in an email as a form of flirting.

Karina Gasparova who worked for the digital trade management solutions firm, essDOCS, from 2019 until her resignation in 2021 told the central London employment tribunal that the XXs in one email referred to kisses, when it was actually a shorthand for points where more information was required.

In the same email, she was found to have misconstrued Alexander Goulandris’s excessive use of question marks as being an encrypted way of asking when she would be “ready to engage in sexual acts”.

Other claims include that when her manager renamed a work file with his initials ‘ajg’ it was an abbreviation of “A Jumbo Genital”, and that he was running his hands through his hair and “staring” at her during a joint business call, in an attempt to “chat her up”.

Her claims were rejected and described by the judge as a “skewed perception of everyday events” with Gasparova accused of making “extraordinary allegations without evidence” and trying to find a “sinister motive” where it didn’t exist.

Nightmare for friendly managers

For managers that are simply trying to be friendly this type of situation is what nightmares are made of. 

“Misunderstandings at work happen with alarming regularity,” warns Alastair Wallace, the founder of Leadership Hacked who has coached 22,000 executives across 80 companies globally.

Whether it’s a rushed Slack message, a gesture of the hand on Zoom, or an accidentally explicit typo in an email, he blames the pressure of multi-channel working in a fast-paced working world.

“This need for speed creates careless oversights and mistakes that can be easily avoided,” he tells Fortune.

Such errors have the power to put the reputation of everyone involved on the line – and are, according to the experts, entirely avoidable.

It’s not about what you say, it’s about what’s heard

“Busy managers frequently communicate from the basis that everyone’s on the same wavelength and understands what’s being said,” Carol Evans, entrepreneur, business coach and best-selling author tells Fortune

Interpretations of the same message can vary depending on a person’s gender, race, upbringing, and so on. It’s why as a manager, it’s so important to know your audience. 

Evans recommends leaders get to know each of their individual workers, down to their personality and their past experiences, to understand “how all of this may affect how they actually hear your message”. 

“Effective communication is not about what you say, it’s about what they understand,” Wallace echoes. 

He suggests leaders ask themselves a few questions before hitting send on any email that could be misconstrued including: What are your key messages? Who is your audience? What do they know about this already? How might they be feeling about this topic?

The same goes for body language. By checking yourself and tailoring the way you deliver your message depending on the recipient (including whether the worker is male or female) it’s less likely to cause offense.

Messages getting lost in translation is on managers

Training yourself to be purposeful in what you say (and how) to every team member you interact with might seem like an awful lot of fuss when it’s probably near impossible to control how every interaction will be interpreted.

But the experts consistently told Fortune that the onus on getting messaging correct (or at the very least, attempting to) lies firmly on the shoulders of managers and not the other way around. 

“Managers have a particular responsibility to ensure that mistakes are avoided as they will often be the one blamed for any negative consequences,” Wallace warns. 

It’s why leaders should always be exceptionally clear.

If after communicating with a worker (online or in person) you’re still unsure whether you left room for your message to be misconstrued, then Evans insists on turning to your worker for feedback.

She suggests putting your hands up and admitting: “I don’t think I explained that all too well, how did you interpret that?”

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