Personal Essay on Male Workplace Behavior, Sexual Harassment
A Letter to the Men Who Are "Afraid" of How to Act at Work in the #MeToo Era
In recent days, I've heard men ask, "What's acceptable workplace behavior anymore?" and "Who knows what will be reported as sexual harassment these days?" In the era of #MeToo, these questions are being tackled in very public ways — most notably, in a Washington Post article titled "Lunches, Hugs, and Break-Room Banter: Where Are the New Boundaries at Work?"
The theme of that article, which I've seen men share, is that workplace interactions are now entering uncharted territory given the explosion of allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior from men in a number of industries. The culture described is one in which many men are afraid and many HR departments are walking on eggshells, uncertain of when and why employees might be called out for sexual harassment.
One Silicon Valley executive received advice from his HR manager to "stop having dinners with female employees," and one lobbyist decided to fly by himself from Texas to Washington because he's "not willing to risk" taking a business trip alone with a female colleague — even though, to quote, "He recognizes that his decision to fly alone is a lost opportunity for his talented young co-worker." Another example in the article is an investor who says his "colleagues have canceled their one-on-one meetings with female entrepreneurs."
To those people, I say: To dumb down the dynamics of the current cultural shift is to miss the entire point of this conversation and to demean the authenticity of real complaints and allegations.
To dumb down the dynamics of the current cultural shift is to miss the entire point of this conversation and to demean the authenticity of real allegations.
To offer a solution of "stop having dinners and one-on-one meetings with women altogether" is to succumb to a level of immaturity that's almost embarrassing. If you don't know how to have casual dinner chat or talk about statistics in a meeting without feeling like you might say something sexually inappropriate or that could possibly be misconstrued as crossing a line, that's on you. Just have a normal meeting.
If you're a man and you've decided to go solo on a work trip, even though your female colleague did much of the work, because you're not "willing to risk" something happening: did you forget how to behave like a professional? Don't ask her to accompany you to your hotel room, just get the work done, and you'll be good to go. To assume that a woman will report you for sexual assault before any encounter has even happened says more about you than it does about her. If you complain about a hypersensitivity in the workplace and the intentions of the #MeToo movement going too far but you're the one creating that hypersensitivity — remember, you decided to go solo, not her — that doesn't do anyone any favors.
As we proceed through this cultural shift, we want you to listen when we claim something happens — to not brush aside our genuine allegations. We don't, however, want you to unfairly assume an allegation will occur before we've even interacted with one another. To decline the hard-working woman the opportunity just because "you're not willing to take the risk" and to shift the blame onto her only reiterates the need for Time's Up in the first place.
You're on a consensual hugging level with a longtime coworker? Great, keep hugging.
If the group of male firefighters in the aforementioned article think they need to "think twice about who else is present when the jokes fly," fine; that's not very difficult. You're on a consensual hugging level with a longtime coworker? Great, keep hugging. You decide to go with a congratulatory handshake instead of a hug when you're not sure if you're on a hugging level with a particular colleague? Great, that's probably what you've done your entire professional career. The "woe is me" mentality in this new era is childish and unnecessary.
To say that "every man is afraid" is absurdly hyperbolic. Women are not asking men to stop opening doors for them. We're not asking for men to stop saying, "Hi, how's the case coming?" in the break room. Those things have always been and will continue to be OK. We're asking men to stop putting their hands where they aren't invited to put them. We're asking men to stop shouting lewd catcalls and then act mad when we look disgusted. We're asking men not to have a Matt Lauer-style button that locks the door beneath your desk without you having to get up. We're asking men to pause on the advances if it is CLEAR we are uncomfortable.
To say that "every man is afraid" is absurdly hyperbolic.
Are you unsure if you're about to do the right thing? Just ask. Have the meeting, but skip the knee rub. This is basic stuff. Use your social skills. Act professional.
There is a difference between increased awareness of personal behavior and acting confused and clueless around women at work. If you feel like you're on the verge of coming off as creepy, you probably are, and that should be enough to make you think through what you're about to do. But if you're one of the "good guys" and you sense nothing wrong with the way you're acting and with the way your actions are being perceived, then you have nothing to worry about. Men should not insult their own intelligence by not being able to recognize the distinction.
The difference between inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace five, 10, 20 years ago and now is simply that more people are finally listening when people complain about it — not that it's suddenly happening out of the blue, and not that everyday occurrences such as lunch outings now need to be put under a microscope. To misinterpret the motive of #MeToo by turning the movement into something it's not is to stifle the big-picture progress even more.
Hold the elevator open if a woman — or any person, for that matter — is running to catch it. You won't get reported to HR for that.
A woman who would very much like to go on the work trip with you if we worked on the project together