By Phil La Duke
I wrote this piece over a year ago and shopped it around to the magazines for which I routinely write only to have it rejected. “It’s off-putting” I was told. “No one wants to read about sexual harassment”, I was told. People are tired of “women’s issues” I was told.
I would like to say things have gotten better in the world, but as the election cycle is in full swing, you can expect more accusations and even more people denouncing the accusers and assassinating their characters. I have become the voice that no one wants to hear, because I am talking about subjects that make people squirm.
I’m tired of hearing about sexual harassment; not because I think the allegations are wrong or that I think it’s blown out of proportion or because the allegations alone ruin promising careers. No, I am tired of sexual harassment because I thought we as a nation were better than this. I taught sexual harassment avoidance classes in corporate America beginning 30 yers ago and I really thought we as a country had matured since then. I was wrong, and I HATE being wrong.
Sexual harassment is widely misunderstood and is far more prevalent than people believe. I thought I would share my knowledge of the topic and clear up some of the misconceptions about it.
First, let’s talk about what sexual harassment is and what it is not (I am not a lawyer, but I got my information for my class from several corporate lawyers so if that isn’t good enough for you I don’t know what to tell you.) In the broadest possible terms sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination in which, “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
- The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
- The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee (like a customer for example).
- The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. (Like when the boss promotes his girlfriend instead of you even though you are equally or more qualified.)
- Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim. (It doesn’t have to cost you money and you don’t have to get fired to
- The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.”
There are two forms of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo is pretty cut and dry — -if you do something of a sexual nature for me, I will advance your career, but if you refuse than you can kiss your career goodbye. These cases are generally pretty damning for the accused, although it’s not quite as simple as someone merely making an unfounded accusation. Typically men (and while it’s not exclusively men it is the overwhelming majority) who engage in this type of sexual harassment believe that they are so powerful that they are beyond the reach of justice, and they will do it again and again (even after they have been fired. I know of at least one executive who was fired for sexual harassment and had no trouble finding a new job where he did the same thing again.) Once a pattern is identified, companies start worrying more about their legal culpability and less about the power drunk Lothario prowling around the office. You can even sue for sexual harassment if someone agrees to a quid pro quo arrangement and gets a job for which you were qualified.
There is a line between inappropriate behavior or comments and a sexual harassment hostile work environment. To meet the threshold of a hostile work environment the behavior must be:
- Uninvited. This can be tricky, but flirtatious behavior, laughing at, or telling dirty jokes, or even wearing inappropriately provocative clothing to the workplace can be construed as inviting some form of sexual attention. To be clear this type of behavior is not a license to harass (anymore than it is a license to rape) but those who choosing to protect themselves from sexual harassment should be wary of how they behave and dress in a work setting. Remaining professional is one of the easiest and most effective ways to demonstrate that you are not inviting inappropriate sexual behavior.
- Unwelcome. Unwelcome sexual innuendos, jokes, or behavior need to be shut down immediately. There doesn’t need to be a be scene, simply tell the person that you don’t appreciate the comments and you would ask that they not behave this way in your presence again. In most cases the person who has behaved offensively will apologize and the behavior will stop. Here again it’s important to note that you need not speak up to indicate that the behavior is unwanted; often the victim’s body language alone is enough to qualify as unwelcome behavior.
- Repeated. A single inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature typically is not enough to rise to the threshold of a hostile work environment, but once the recipient makes it known that the behavior is uninvited and unwelcome if it occurs again then the recipient has a case for sexual harassment under the sexual harassment laws. This probably a good point to distinguish between criminal sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. While both are on the rape continuum, and both are an abuse of power, if anyone intentionally touches you in an aggressive manner he or she is guilty of assault (again lawyers can argue over this, but my point is people don’t have the right to aggressively touch you.) If a person intentionally touches an intimate part of your body that is even in a non-aggressive manner he or she could be prosecuted for criminal sexual misconduct. In these cases one occasion is enough to constitute a crime, in other words sexual harassment is a pattern of behavior while sexual assault need not be.
The laws may be different for elected officials,and frankly my information is a bit long in the tooth, but what as I understand it, corporations are generally automatically culpable for quid pro quo harassment whether they knew about it or not, and in general good, ethical supervision is enough to prevent a hostile workplace from developing.
Twenty years ago when I was teaching sexual harassment avoidance I thought to myself, “is this really necessary? Don’t grown ups know the difference between right and wrong?” As it turns out they didn’t. I would get asked all sorts of questions about whether it was okay to compliment someone of the opposite sex, and much to my chagrin, I had to tell people that it’s okay to compliment someone’s appearance or their outfit, but it was inappropriate to make comments about someone’s body parts or how an outfit might make those parts look better or worse.
Why didn’t people learn this when they were still young? Why do grown ups have to be told that the workplace isn’t their own private love connection hunting ground? Why do people have to be told that when someone blushes or stammers when a dirty joke is told that they don’t like this?
When I was a young man I worked as an assistant manager for a small restaurant chain that was ultimately sued for widespread sexual harassment. I was the only male supervisor not named in the suit. It’s not that I didn’t like the many pretty, flirtatious, young females who worked there, it’s just that I was a boss and I knew that I had to set an example. I had to intervene when things got out of hand, which was often the case. I once wrote a young man up for making inappropriate vaguely sexual comments to a female coworker who began crying after he said them. I would love to say that even then I was a champion of sexual harassment avoidance, but the truth is I was just sick of people not doing their jobs and horsing around. But when the lawyers pulled the disciplinary documents for the lawsuit, they ran across this little gem and it saved me from being named in the lawsuit. I inadvertently saved my bacon simply by doing my job. When he begged, then berated, then threatened me, I reminded the employee of my simple credo “when you’re problems become my problems, I will solve them. I don’t need any help getting fired; I can do that all on my own.”
So you tell me, why do so many men feel that acting like…I can’t even say fourth graders because even then I knew such behavior was inappropriate…a pervert at work, or as a customer, or as a stranger on the street is appropriate behavior?
Trust me when I say that I am a man of strong opinions, I am quick with a smart-aleck remark, and some of my statements in training courses or consulting skirt the very edges of the line, but I know where that line is and in those cases where I cross it, I apologize. (I had one employee who would always tell me after attending one of my sessions, that she would pray for me. I would thank her and say “I can use all the prayers I can get”. She told me once, “you’re a good man, but you don’t like to be.” I asked her what she meant and she said, “it’s easier to be a bad man in this world because this world accepts so much bad behavior as normal. You’re not normal (I hear that a lot) but you’ll be okay, I don’t think you can be a bad man no matter how hard you try. You like to pretend that you’re a bad guy because you like to stir things up.” It might have been the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. That was several decades ago and I often find myself wondering if she’s still alive (she was like 150ish when I met her) and if so if she still prays for me, and if she knew me now if she would still think of me as a good man. Fortunately for me, the bar has been set pretty low as of late.
In the light of the #metoo movement, I’ve had a lot of men say to me in absolute earnestness, “I’m beginning to wonder if I might have raped a woman, if I had sex with a woman, or if I may have harassed them.” Now, I’m no rapist but I have to believe that a man who has raped a woman knows damned good and well that he has. It’s like wondering if you’re an arsonist, or a murderer. What a stupid thing to ask. Even a sociopath knows whether or not he is guilty of a crime. Gentlemen, let’s not pretend we don’t know right from wrong. Geraldo Rivera recently tweeted something to the effect that “we’ve all done things we regret in high school. Do we have to pay for it the rest of our lives?” I’ve done more than 10 people’s fair share of stupid things in high school and paid the price in most cases. The thing I most regret was ever mistaking Geraldo Rivera for a serious journalist and of course for watching him open Al Capone’s vault.
So Geraldo, here it is, if you bullied someone, yeah that shit doesn’t just go away. I’ve been bullied and I have bullied; I regret both and tried to make amends with those I’ve wronged. It seemed to make a difference but if they hate me forever I suppose that’s their right. I have never raped anyone, but I am going to go out on a limb here and say, you have to carry that with you to the grave. You have to live with the idea that you raped someone, well after you were old enough to know better. It’s nothing to laugh about, it’s nothing to dismiss as having happened a long time ago — the Holocaust was a long time ago, but that doesn’t excuse it. Time doesn’t mend all wounds and someone seeking public office or who becomes a public speaker should live in fear of the possibility that the people who harmed them might just make that harm and the circumstances of that harm known. Your accuser might just shed a bit of light on your life and provide some insight not on who you were years ago, but who you are now.
So Geraldo, the answer is that our misdeeds or youthful indiscretions can’t just get waived away. While we might have been able to downplay it over the years the victims often can’t get past the damage we’ve done. No one gets any credit or not having raped anyone recently.