ANOTHER WEEK, another famous dude fired from his job for being a creep.
While it’s frustrating that we’re still waiting to roar “You’re FIRED” to the most famous creep of all, it’s heartening that #MeToo’s call-out moment is morphing into a bona fide movement.(Update: TIME magazine has announced "The Silence Breakers" as its Person of the Year!)
Still, it’s pretty annoying that it’s taken this long to become a thing. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, establishing standards for the workplace and holding employers accountable. Yet 30 years and a bajillion human resources lectures later, one in four women still reports having been sexually harassed at work and the number of sexual harassment claims filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has not diminished.
“With legal liability long ago established, with reputational harm from harassment well known, with an entire cottage industry of workplace compliance and training adopted and encouraged for 30 years, why does so much harassment persist and take place in so many of our workplaces?” ponders a 2016 report by the EEOC Special Task Force.
I decided to ask local employment attorney Wade Herring of the law firm Hunter Maclean the same question, because what else is there to talk about anymore when you’ve exhausted the hideous tax bill and SEC football?
In addition to being an all-around swell fellow and coveted emcee (you can catch his act at the Citizens Advocacy Covered Dish Supper every spring), Wade was the first lawyer in Savannah to focus solely on employment law and has been handling sexual harassment suits since the Supreme Court ruling. (Which, incidentally, came down five years before Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing and subsequent allegations by law professor Anita Hill that he sexually harassed her when the two worked together at the EEOC. A relevant point of interest, methinks.)
Wade thought he’d seen it all, but nothing like the crisis of conduct we’ve got going on in 2017.
“It seems like there’s been this shift where everything is very casual, and people have this idea that the workplace is no different from the rest of life, that we’re all friends or something,” he says.
“Broadly speaking, there’s been an erosion of a standard norms of what is an appropriate way to behave at work. The general crassness of society has bled into the workplace, and people are confused about why they’re getting into trouble.”
Some of his cases involve the extremely serious violations of sexual assault and coercion, though he describes the crux of “everyday sexual harassment” lawsuits as vulgar comments, inappropriate jokes and “locker room talk,” which is just code for super sexist language.
Such patriarchal monkey business may have once been acceptable workplace banter, but, dudes, wake up, the lawyers are telling you that those days are way done.
In the absence of a shared cultural norm, it’s necessary to play by the rules of what some may disdainfully refer to as “political correctness,” though most of us call it “not being a disgusting jerk.”
“Our society has become very diverse—which is great—not just culturally, but also in terms of values and beliefs and where we get our information,” Wade points out. “That means there’s a pretty good chance someone isn’t going to think you’re funny.”
While there are those employees who can’t keep the bro culture out of their cubicle, he muses that the steady rates of reported harassment may also be due to an uptick in workplace complaints that aren’t necessarily illegal. Though it may against company policy, asking someone out on a date isn’t egregious in itself, and you can’t take a co-worker to court for just being annoying, like offering you some of their stinky leftover Chinese food and singing off-key Fleetwood Mac ballads whenever they’re feeling stressed. (Sorry, cube mates!)
“It’s people behaving badly and it’s people overreacting,” he counsels. “The law doesn’t say you can’t be a human being, but you have to respect boundaries.”
The legal language defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is severe or pervasive,” and simple teasing and pervy vibes aren’t prohibited by law—until they become so frequent and severe that it creates a hostile work environment or results in the victim getting fired or demoted.
Mostly, we all have to work together in the gray areas. Since so many men seem to be confused on how not to be the office creep, I will do the emotional labor this one time and offer a short primer:
•Don’t offer to massage anyone. However, gift certificates are perfectly suitable. Well, except to Massage Envy. (ICYMI, more than 180 allegations of sexual misconduct have recently been filed against the national franchise.)
• Forgo certain situations, especially if you are in a position of power. This means no on attending your intern’s happy hour hot tub party, but no need to go all Pence Rule, which includes never dining with a woman without your wife present or attending an event without her if alcohol is being served. In Savannah, that would basically reduce your networking opportunities to zero.
More importantly, men who avoid women in the workplace altogether end up reducing professional mentorship and opportunities for a woman to advance. Although if you can’t figure out this issue, she’s probably next in line for your job.
• Unless you are a burlesque dancer or in a bathroom stall by yourself, don’t take off your pants.
• Don’t send a dildo to a co-worker, no matter how much she mentions she’s having her bachelorette party on River Street.
• Don’t have sex—or ask anyone to have sex—at work. Even if—especially if—you have one of those secret door lock buttons under your desk. Consider replacing it with a button that makes a fresh pot of coffee in the breakroom or showers everyone in bubbles to boost morale.
I could go on, but most companies have a qualified human resources professional who can fill in the blanks. Our friendly neighborhood employment attorney also recommends that every workplace have a written sexual harassment policy, no matter how small the business. (Sure, you may work from home, but frankly, that cat of yours looks sketchy. And, I might add, isn’t wearing any pants.)
Mostly, we all must continue advocating for a culture where everyone goes to work without being slobbered over or intimidated and is empowered to speak up when it happens. Seventy-five percent of those who say they’ve been sexually harassed at work never breathed a word to a supervisor for fear of retaliation or losing their job, and sometimes the supervisor is the creep.
But the times, they are a’changing, and employers aren’t playing. If you have a legit sexual harassment complaint, right now seems like a great time to come forward, since upper management seems to be all ears—and quite concerned with keeping their hands to themselves.