An Employment Attorney's Advice to Men in the Office
Amidst the onslaught of sexual harassment accusations, should you be worried?
The tidal wave of men in Hollywood, Congress and the media losing their jobs after allegations of sexual harassment has spurred many to worry about their own pasts.
Across the country, mid-level managers are racking their brains, rereading old emails and checking text message histories to see if they crossed a line.
As an attorney who has handled a number of sexual harassment cases on behalf of the victims, I’d like to say to these men: You can relax, probably.
The allegations made against figures including, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, “Today Show” anchor Matt Lauer and Congressman John Conyers were not your garden-variety misfired joke or inapt comment.
They included, at best, serious abuses of power ranging from allegations of criminal assault to rape. You are not going to end up in court because you were too enthusiastic when praising the dress the intern wore to the office holiday party.
That’s not to say those remarks are appropriate or that you shouldn’t think about how you treat your colleagues.
The growing fear among some men that sexual harassment laws are enforced too stringently is misplaced. (One recent AP story featured a man who worried that he “can’t even feel safe saying ‘Good morning’ anymore.” As a lawyer, I’m here to tell you, you can say that still.)
In fact, violations of the law on sexual harassment remain as difficult to prove as ever. A hostile work environment claim must involve behavior that is either severe — making your intern watch porn with you, for instance, or pervasive — giving your office intern an overly enthusiastic assessment of her wardrobe multiple times a day, every day.
Second, you are not in the public eye (I'm guessing). The allegations against these men were not only clearly illegal, they were very public. In that case, the legal claims against these men were less impactful in their firings than the public storm created by the allegations forcing companies to act quickly. Companies don't face the same pressures when considering allegations involving your average middle manager.
So, most men need not stay up at night worrying about their job security simply because they work alongside women. However, it is true that companies — as they should be — will be on high alert for sexual harassment claims for at least as long as the media spotlight lurks on them. This means that complaints that previously may have been ignored by HR departments, will be moved to the top of the pile.
Women are not glee-filled about filing harassment claims, even if they are more attention grabbing now. So don't expect your aggrieved intern to run to HR because you commented on her new shoes.
The bottom line: Don’t be a jerk. If there’s some past event causing you concern, start making amends and update your resume, just in case.
And if you know your behavior crossed a line — if you constantly commented on women’s appearances, watched NSFW programming at the office, asked your female coworkers about their sex lives and told them about yours, kissed women who did not want to be kissed, groped them, exposed yourself to them, propositioned them, punished them for resisting your advances or sexually assaulted them — well, you might want to look into getting a lawyer.
Tom Spiggle is the author of "You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers and Other Caregivers in the Workplace." He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, VA., Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tenn., where he focuses on workplace law helping protect the rights of clients facing pregnancy and caregiver discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination in the workplace.