The Sexualized Workplace

Each time I think that everyone FINALLY understands what is and is not appropriate behavior in the workplace, something happens to remind me that’s just not so.

Not long ago I investigated a situation that resulted not from a complaint (as is most commonly the case) but from a concern management had about a particular work group.  As I talked with employees in that group, I discovered that nearly everyone (that is, men and women, older and younger) participated in

 • Sexual banter, off-color jokes and comments about one another’s body parts

• Light punching, grabbing and slapping butts, bumping into one another

• Sharing of stories about porn watched on-line and visits to topless bars.

I bet you’re thinking: wow – this sounds like a construction site in the 60’s! Well – it wasn’t a construction site, and my work here was recent. What’s going on? It turns out that the folks working here are all nice people. They were very willing to talk with me. By and large they just didn’t see the problem – except that a couple of them shared that they were uncomfortable when these interactions went “over the line”- wherever they thought that was. The rest of the time they thought the banter and joking simply served to make the workplace a more fun place to be.

Where was management in this? They had conducted anti-harassment training – which no one took seriously since everyone played (or appeared to play) along with the above exchanges. Management was shocked when I told them what I found. We discussed what to do, and I suggested the following:

• Establish clear workplace expectations: even if everyone there thinks it’s ok, a sexualized workplace is not acceptable.

• Be very specific about what is and is not acceptable. Give clear examples – even if they’re embarrassing to repeat. Don’t want employees to brag about the size of their breats or genitals? Tell them that’s not acceptable. Don’t want them to talk about the exotic dancers they went to see last night? Tell them that. You get the idea.

• Include an expectation that management be informed when anyone violates these expectations. Watching silently is not an option.

• Be clear about the consequences for violating the expectations.

Why such a big deal? Isn’t everyone just having a little fun at work?  It’s a big deal because not only does this kind of activity interfere with work performance, but it’s entirely possible that someday a new employee will be hired who won’t put up with it – and when they file a harassment lawsuit and cost the employer tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars – not to speak of poor publicity – it’s a high price to pay.

Have you successfully dealt with the problem of a sexualized workplace? What did you do that worked? We’d love to know! ~Daphne Schneider

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