Simple Ways to Avoid Being Accused of Sexual Harassment at Work (Aside From Just Not Doing It)
For anyone who wants to make sure they don’t get labeled a “sexual predator”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The Harvey Weinstein scandal has lots of people in powerful places running scared for three important reasons:
There's heightened awareness and outrage right now.
People (ie. the media), are actively on the lookout for offenders.
Many are making up for the past when they, "didn't speak out."
As a woman, this movement makes me hopeful the future will be different for my two teenage daughters.
However, as a former HR executive, I also have compassion and want to help anyone out there who is concerned about how to move forward. Now that the floodgates have opened around the subject of sexual harassment, it doesn't matter who you are or what industry you are in. When it comes to your career, this quote is more important than ever:
"Credibility takes a lifetime to build, and one second to lose."
There are 1000s of professionals out there right now that are one Tweet or blog post away from having their careers ruined. Do they deserve it? Yes. However, I also believe there are millions more out there who haven't made a mistake - yet. But, without the right coaching, could become the next Harvey Weinstein and ruin their lives. These are the people I want to help.
As former HR executive and a career coach, let me tell you what happens when you get accused of sexual harassment and you AREN'T famous...
Over the years, I've had over a dozen people come to me after losing their jobs due to a sexual harassment claim. Men AND women. This is what you can expect:
Immediate termination of your employment to avoid a lawsuit against the company.
"Not eligible for rehire," is all they say on a reference check when potential new employers call to verify your previous employment.
There's no clear way to answer, "Why did you leave your last job?" because when you say there were claims of sexual harassment, nobody will hire you.
Total humiliation when you explain why you lost your job to your significant other, kids, friends and extended family.
Clearly, it's just not worth the risk. But, what's the answer?
Avoiding working with the opposite sex isn't an option.
Instead, building your skills to work more effectively with the other gender. I realize this subject is uncomfortable. But, growth only occurs when you step outside your comfort zone. People just need some information and guidance to help them feel confident in their abilities to navigate this. So, let me offer some.
So, let's start with some advice from a guy who is doing it right.
I spoke to a friend. He's in Private Equity, a field that is notorious for sexual harassment. He is someone I trust and respect because I've seen first-hand how professional he is with men and women. He's the role model of how to treat all colleagues. I love collaborating with him because of it.
I asked my friend, "What advice were you given or can give to help men and women avoid getting fired for sexual harassment?" He gave me four great tips:
1) Don't s!@# where you eat. Keep business and pleasure separate. Just because you work a lot of hours, doesn't entitle you to make the office your dating resource.
2) Do you want to be recognized for achievement or aesthetic? Treat all colleagues the same way. Focus on their work, not their looks.
3) Turn off the Neanderthal and get down to study hall. Discover your coworkers' gifts and you, them, and the business will succeed.
4) Flip it to test it. Use one of Donald Rumsfeld's rules is "when thinking about how to proceed with something, visualize yourself as your own CEO/boss and think how they might advise you." Now, flip that around and visualize your coworker as your boss. Now, see if you still want to move forward with your behavior.
When in doubt, use "The Rock" as your mentor.
This last one reminds me of an amazing article I read recently by Anne Victoria Clark. It's called "The Rock Test: A Hack for Men Who Don't Want To Be Accused of Sexual Harassment."
It's funny and informative. In short, she says in situations where you feel uncomfortable with a professional and are unsure what to do, imagine they are The Rock and you'll find your answer.
For example, if a female colleague asks you to meet for coffee to "pick your brain" but she's a pretty blonde, just like your ex, imagine her as The Rock and you'll realize you should focus in on her skills and figuring out how to make her your ally instead of your date.
As I always tell clients, these days, every job is temporary and your network is your net worth. Helping everyone in their careers is good for your career.
Lastly, these two boundaries matter most.
There are two areas you can focus on to ensure you aren't seen as a sexual predator: space and speech.
Let's start with space.
Years ago, in my early twenties, I worked at a company where a young guy would go around and start giving out free shoulder massages. His name was Richard. All the women found it uncomfortable. They were all talking about it behind his back. They would tell Richard they didn't want one, but he'd still try. He meant it as kindness, and couldn't accept that others would see it as anything else but that. Sadly, this was a start-up and they didn't have HR. Nothing got done about his behavior. However, this is the exact kind of thing that down the line gets a person in trouble. Especially, when the person assumes leadership responsibility. I'm sure once accused Richard's reaction would be like many others, "But, I've always done this and nobody complained before." Yet, that won't save him. In the business setting, be mindful of personal space, or you could get accused.
Next, let's talk speech. Specifically, humor.
The say everyone believes they have taste and a sense of humor. However, making jokes which make fun of a coworker is playing with fire. I heard recently about a guy that almost got fired after introducing a young female associate of his firm by saying, "I've got pants older than her," as well as other comments around her age and gender. He thought he was being funny, and likely has been making jokes like that for years. But, all it takes is one person to finally stand up to someone with this type of humor for a sexual harassment claim to be put forth.
Aristotle had a list of virtues.
He said they all fell in between two extremes. The virtue of wittiness fell between boorishness (no sense of humor) and buffoonery (trying too hard to make people laugh). Most sexual predators are buffoons. When it doubt, leave it out. You don't need to be funny, you need to be good at your job. Hold the humor and focus on saying things of value and substance.
Remember, "Your reputation is what people say about you when you leave the room".
Learning how to work with coworkers without the risk of getting accused of sexual harassment is not hard. It just requires tapping into your emotional intelligence. And, it has the incredible upside of helping you in your career by building your reputation as trusted peer and advisor.
The good news is if you read this, then you clearly care enough about this to get it right. Awareness is the first and one of the biggest steps to building your skills in this area.
P.S. - If you found this helpful, consider paying it forward.
Sharing this post on our social media feeds can help it get to all those who are worried about this happening to them. With education comes growth. You'll be helping millions of men and women by spreading this knowledge.