By Madeleine Maccar
You’ve attended the seminars. You’ve asked tons of questions. You’ve had your HR team put the proper stop-gap measures in place. And yet, you can’t help but feel that you’re not totally sure what does and doesn’t constitute sexual harassment or even general workplace misbehavior—and now you’re not only worried about effectively fielding your employees’ grievances but also second-guessing what you can say to anyone anymore.
Here’s the good news: Self-policing the ways you both treat other people and speak to them means that you’re already on the right track. An area as multi-layered as harassment (both inside and beyond the workplace) has a lot of nuance to consider, but one hard-and-fast rule to keep in mind is that impact trumps intent; or, to put it another way, just because you didn’t MEAN to offend someone doesn’t forgive the fact that you HAVE caused them significant pain that any compassionate person’s conscience would be compelled to assuage.
Considering your words and actions is a good first step when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of harassment—and remember that mistreatment isn’t just based on sex but can also include the physical and mental abuse of any protected class based on race, color, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and age. (For those who attended our Safeguarding Your Company From Sexual Harassment seminar in San Diego, you may remember that our legal and HR experts spent a considerable amount addressing this very topic.) The key takeaway? A little bit of empathy goes an awfully long way in sidestepping both emotional and legal landmines. Anyone can be on the receiving end of tasteless comments. Men are often not taken seriously when speaking up, and women can be vicious to each other, so don’t make the mistake of discounting a claim because of your assumption of who a victim should be. This doesn’t, of course, mean that you can no longer joke around the office or pay someone a compliment: It just means you have to do so respectfully. And if that calls for a serious overhaul and examination of how you’ve been conducting yourself or what your office culture has become, you’re lucky you didn’t have to learn that lesson via lawsuits and mass resignations. A private re-education is far less catastrophic than a public shaming: Your comments won’t be read back to you in court, your name won’t be slandered in traditional or social media, and you won’t lose your company in order for you to see the error of your ways.
With the mobile office meaning that people are no longer bound to just one desk but can work from home, travel between a company’s different corporate locations, be on the road, and represent the brand at places like trade shows and professional events, the lines dividing our personal and professional lives are blurring at speeds that can be hard to keep up with—and that means that the personality you reserve for your friends and family might unexpectedly show itself in a way that gives your professional colleagues pause. We’re human and make mistakes, so if you immediately recognize that you’ve crossed a line, most people will accept a sincere apology and your promise to think before you speak or act in the future. But expecting others to just forgive your deliberate rudeness, offensive behavior, and mean-spirited jokes because it’s all “part of your candid charm” is how you alienate your peers and can be one surefire way to get yourself blackballed from lucrative jobs with high-touch, sensitive clients—and that’s just if things don’t escalate into a costlier, more visible legal issue. It’s considerably more serious when you are the owner of the company either allowing employees to act like that or if you are setting the example.
The #MeToo movement has empowered victims of sexual misconduct at previously unseen rates. And while it has brought an uncomfortable but necessary conversation out of hushed shadows and into the stark reality of sunlight, it has left several well-meaning but thoroughly baffled individuals in its wake. We’ve compiled a list of the most common myths related to harassment and assault to demystify these crucial conversations for those who still feel left in the dark.
Myth: “I can’t make jokes or compliment people anymore!”
Reality: You absolutely can, just not in a way that objectifies, marginalizes, or shames anyone.
If your entire comedic repertoire was edgy observations that you were constantly softening with “Relax, it was just a joke” or the only positive remarks you offered were based on others’ physical attributes, I’d like to introduce you to 2018. It’s time to leave borderline cruelty, lecherous commentary, unwelcome come-ons, and other relics of the caveman mentality permanently in the dust. Sure, you can compliment a female employee on her eye for fashion or a new hairstyle, It’s just not the best practice to let someone’s appearance eclipse their personality, talents, or capability.
The #MeToo movement isn’t meant to be a war against men but against once “socially accepted” comments that were always hurtful or derogatory.
For those who are really worried about your status as the office cutup, there’s a comedic rule about “punching up” (poking fun at the people who wield more societal power than you, which tends to come across as a humorous, harmless coping mechanism) versus “punching down” (jokes at the expense of people who fall under a protected class, which can make you seem like a jerk who’s mocking people who are already disenfranchised) that you’d do well to abide by. Essentially, it’s the same code of conduct most of us learned as schoolchildren: You don’t kick someone when they’re down, and lobbing one more microaggression at folks who are already on the marginalized end of societal power dynamics is almost always in poor taste.
Remember that it’s not just verbal or physical sexual violence that’s illegal in the workplace, either. Harken back to our sexual harassment seminar from this past May, where legal professional Ann Plunkett and HR expert Brooke Keil advised that “offensive or disparaging remarks or conduct directed at any ‘protected class’ can also create a hostile work environment.” And even if you’re making jokes at the expense of your own place among a protected class, think about what kind of message that’s sending others—it’s allowing them to feel and often say the same.
And if you’re not laughing, you’re not a fragile snowflake: You’re demanding to be treated with civility and respect while refusing to suffer someone else’s attempts to objectify you and undermine your worth as a human being.
Myth: “But they liked it before—why is it suddenly a problem now?”
Reality: Here’s a secret: They might have been laughing on the outside but were scared to death on the inside.
One of the most unfortunate trends born of victims finally finding the courage to speak out against those who’ve assaulted them is the preponderance of doubt, gaslighting, and flippant dismissal of their long-carried pain. Imagine that your bodily autonomy and sense of security among your professional surroundings were ripped from you in such a way that even talking about it meant making yourself vulnerable to strangers, revisiting viscerally painful memories, and reducing yourself to an object of pity at best and a target at worst, all while also calling out your abuser—who is often someone in a powerful position with a legion of friends and supporters who aren’t ready to accept the ugly truth about someone they respect and admire. Or worse, they just don’t care.
It’s time to leave borderline cruelty, lecherous commentary, unwelcome come-ons, and other relics of the caveman mentality permanently in the dust.
That’s why it might take months, years, and even decades for victims to finally gather the strength to drag their private hells into a more public forum. That’s also why things like consent can be so tricky, as victims of sexual misconduct often feel pressured into saying “Yes” to a situation they don’t want but can at least control instead of saying “No,” which carries the risk of finding themselves on the receiving end of escalating emotional and physical violence. To put it bluntly, knowing what you’re willingly submitting to is easier than trying to remove yourself from a losing situation that could spiral beyond your control before you can either resist or physically walk away.
Which is why you’ll also find that the flirtatious come-ons you think are so irresistible are often met with awkward laughs, forced smiles, and nervously averted eyes. When you can’t ignore the odious things someone is saying or trying to do to you, going along with it often feels like the safest bet. And it might be, but it’s also implicitly agreeing to take it and it edges the boundary between what is and isn’t okay a little farther into the danger zone—which can ultimately lead to fully realized violence or at least one very uncomfortable office environment if the unwanted behavior is allowed to continue unchecked.
The conversation about workplace misconduct doesn’t begin and end with sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. But all of its various avenues do include a specialized lexicon that can definitely be overwhelming to interpret if you’re just joining the conversation.
Here’s a quick primer on some key terms and phrases:
#MeToo: Late last summer and well into the fall, the hashtag unified thousands of sexual violence victims and created a safe community for long-silenced stories to be told, but it began with Tarana Burke in 2006. The website metoomvmt.org defines it as a “movement to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing.” It relies on the concept of “empowerment through empathy” to assure survivors that they’re not alone in their journey.
Gaslighting: This form of psychological manipulation aims to make victims doubt themselves—and reality as they perceive it—through a mixture of denial, misdirection, contradiction, and outright lying so an abuser is neither accountable for nor forced to stop their abuses. The term has its origins in the 1938 stage play “Gas Light” (adapted into the 1944 film “Gaslight”) about a married couple, wherein the husband attempts to manipulate their domestic environment to convince everyone that his wife is delusionally insane. The titular gas lights of their home are a key weapon, as the wife recalls them being dimmed while the husband insists that she just imagined it.
Microaggression: The term “racial microaggressions” was first proposed by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the ’70s, but psychologists have significantly amplified the concept in recent years. Today, it’s generally regarded as the everyday insults, indignities, and demeaning messages sent to people within protected classes, generally said or written by well-meaning people who are unaware of the coded insults they’re delivering. It’s like telling a lesbian that she doesn’t look gay—implying that “looking straight” is the normal she should strive for—or remarking that a black person “talks like they’re white,” thus erasing that individual’s cultural background while suggesting that AAVE (or African-American Vernacular English—more regrettably known as “ebonics”—which actually does adhere to some pretty stringent linguistic rules) is “less-than” the many other accents and dialects spoken in this country.
Privilege: One of the more aggressively misunderstood progressive terms, privilege does not mean that your life is without struggle if you’re not part of a protected class. It just means that you have not directly suffered the societal biases that target homosexuals, transgender men and women, the gender-fluid, people of Jewish or Muslim faiths, atheists, people of color, and women. When people say “check your privilege,” it simply means that you’re not coming at a problem like someone with a lived experience of bias would and that you should consider those perspectives’ firsthand experiences.
Myth: “Why should I care? This is a woman’s problem—and it’s a witch-hunt anyway.”
Reality: Well, actually ...
What if your chauffeur makes a client uncomfortable? What if a client makes one of your best chauffeurs uncomfortable? What if the affiliate managers at the companies you want to work with won’t work with yours? What if people avoid you and your staff at industry and networking events? What if you’ve gained a reputation for being verbally abusive or making unwanted advances? That’s not just a woman’s problem: That’s a legal, profitability, and business problem. Which is a round-about way of saying that, as a company decision-maker, they are all your problems most of all. It’s also reductive and insulting because victims aren’t exclusively women.
A Marketplace-Edison Research Poll conducted earlier this year found that nearly 14 percent of men have reported being the victims of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Men are not immune to sexual harassment, just as they’re not immune to the harassment that often-targeted groups like ethnic minorities, the LGBTQA+ community, and elderly citizens face. Harassment, abuse, and misconduct aren’t just isolated hormonal outbursts: Anything that fosters a hostile work environment is grounds for a legal investigation that could ultimately take down your company.
Keil and Plunkett defined a hostile work environment as one that “can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive.” When we talk about high employee turnover, we need to consider that people rarely leave jobs—they leave managers, co-workers, and bosses, and their reasons for walking away absolutely include protecting themselves from people and places compromising their sense of security (another Marketplace-Edison Research Poll found that nearly half of the women who have reported being harassed in the workplace either changed jobs or switched careers). Bottom line: Ignore your employees’ complaints about harassment at your own peril, as you’ll soon find that what you wrote off as a woman’s problem is now absolutely your problem, too.
And yes, there are false assault reports being lobbed at innocent men and women alike. But decades of studies and reports agree that only between 2 and 10 percent of all rape accusations yield inconclusive evidence of a crime—and the punishment for attempting to smear someone’s name with bogus claims can include jail time, as was the 2017 case where a 25-year-old woman from the U.K. was sentenced to 10 years in jail for making a series of false rape claims and sexual assault allegations. So, no, there is no epidemic of faux victims risking a prison record just for some quick attention or to exact their revenge.
If all else fails, consider how you’d feel if your mother, sister, aunt, or daughter called you up and, betweenhyperventilating sobs, tried to explain to you that she’d just been assaulted and needs help. Is it still just a woman’s problem when it happens to a woman you love?
Myth: “Maybe I’m just being oversensitive.”
Reality: If you’re not angry, you’re not paying enough attention.
If someone is making you uncomfortable, chances are that their behavior has repulsed many others before you—and you won’t be the last unless you stand up for yourself. No one gets to dictate you how to feel but you. No one gets to tell you to laugh off an offensive joke or comment, brush off an unwanted hand, take unwelcome advances as a compliment, ignore a graphic text message, or disregard the warning signs your gut is all but screaming at you.
“You’re just being sensitive” and “It’s just a joke” are cruel ways of dismissing a very real pain. What’s more, it’s 100-percent manipulation if someone tries to convince you that your feelings affect them in a negative way when they’re the real instigator.
Innocent mistakes happen, and it’s fairly easy to distinguish them from deliberately mean acts because a genuinely remorseful person will accept blame and not only atone for but also learn from their mistakes. There’s a difference between giving people a second chance and being a doormat, and you should absolutely listen to your instincts when they tell you to be wary of letting yourself be taken advantage of.
If someone is making you uncomfortable, chances are that their behavior has repulsed many others before you—and you won’t be the last unless you stand up for yourself.
The times, they are a-changin’, and the locker-room mentality of the past is finally on its way out, especially as people of different genders, ethnicities, creeds, and abilities take their hard-won places at the table. This isn’t to say the fight is over—as long as those with societal privilege can still squash the voices of the under-represented, an injustice against one is an injustice against all—but progress has been made, and it’s only marching on. More so, the previous “norms” of company culture will no longer be tolerated. Remember that change happens when people who care show up and do something, so help those who need a hand, be the voice for those who are afraid to speak up, and keep on demanding that we keep doing—and being—better.
Because there are a lot of topics that we’d love to be talking about, and kicking harassment, abuse, and misconduct of all kinds to the curb should have been a conversation we stopped having years ago.