The great 2017 Advent Calendar of Workplace Pervs continues to reveal creep after creep, day after day.
And I am astonished. Not because I had no idea such things went on in the working world, but because the story has not blown over yet. I thought there would be a flurry of high-profile accusations after Harvey Weinstein, and then the herd would get bored and move along to graze elsewhere. Instead, the story endures, as it should.
Predictably, the longer it stays in the headlines, the more I hear a growing panic among some men (and some women, too): Isn’t this going too far? It seems like a man can lose his job just because some woman makes an accusation! We all have targets on our backs now! No man is safe.
Let’s take a closer look at this fear. How rational is it?
First: If it’s recent headlines that are making you nervous, let’s recall that every single man who was fired for inappropriate sexual behavior is accused of doing something very serious. Matt Lauer didn’t get the axe for calling someone “hon.” Al Franken isn’t under fire because he had dust in his eye, but some lady thought he was winking. These men are not accused of accidents, misunderstandings, or fleeting comments made in a weak moment of poor judgment.
They are accused of committing overtly sexual acts, of repeatedly using their power to do predatory things to the bodies of women, just because they thought they could get away with it.
So let’s dispense with the idea that phalanxes of men are losing their livelihoods over trivial accusations. At least in the high profile cases we’ve been seeing, that simply isn’t what’s happening.
Second: Nobody fires a star without solid evidence he’s guilty. These guys have the best contracts money can buy. No news channel or Hollywood studio is going to risk being sued for firing their top guy for no good reason. Think about it: If they fired someone, it’s because they know they have an airtight case. They investigate the claims and find out if they are plausible, if the accuser is credible, and if there is a pattern.
So not only are these men accused of serious offenses, but the accusations must have merit. If they didn’t have merit, no corporation in its right mind would run the risk of being sued for wrongful termination. Think about it: Someone who works for NBC installed that secret door lock button for Matt Lauer. They already knew what he was up to. They fired him because they’ve had tons of evidence for years, and it suddenly became fashionable to act on it, that’s all.
Nevertheless, I have some sympathy for men. America is not known for its temperance. We do tend to overcompensate; and so, yes, from some quarters, there are calls for all men to suffer. One woman said on Twitter that she didn’t care if innocent men get unjustly accused, since so many women have suffered injustice (and one writer says a major news outlet tried to get her to argue that men do not deserve due process.). So I can understand how even a completely innocent man might feel some unease, wondering if they’ll get swept up in an undiscerning mob that started out seeking justice but ends up just looking for blood.
So how should an innocent man behave in the workplace? Is there anything he can do to remove even the possibility of being accused unjustly, without acting like an alien?
My friend Kate Cousino suggests implementing The Rock Test, in which men simply visualize women as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and then magically find themselves taking no liberties whatsoever. Ta dah!
For a more nuanced approach, I’ll turn the rest of this essay over to another friend, a man who is a finance director at a large company. Here’s what he says:
I’m a guy who manages a team which for the last three years has been composed entirely of women, so I’ve thought about harassment type issues a fair amount well before this whole blow up.
Does this mean that I refuse to mentor or be alone with women? No.
What do I watch myself most carefully on? I don’t make comments about how people working for me are dressed. Yes, this took a little work at first. With a guy, if he comes in particularly well dressed some day, I might joke, “What, interviewing for another job?” With a woman, if I wasn’t conscious of these things, I might have been tempted to say something like, “Wow, you’re looking fancy today!” But you know what? I’m glad that I’ve trained myself out of saying that kind of thing. The women who work for me don’t need to know my opinions on their fashion, and several years in it is an important aspect of the comfort we all have with each other that there is zero sense of tension on the team. They shouldn’t be thinking about what I’ll think about what they’re wearing anyway.
If I want to lean over someone to do something on her computer, I ask her first. And that’s not awkward, because honestly, I wouldn’t get that physically close to a guy normally either.
I don’t worry about meeting alone with a woman on my team in a conference room or in an office, but like virtually any corporate office building all our rooms have windows so there’s no fear of being out of sight.
And though I’ve traveled with one or more of my female employees, it would frankly never have occurred to me to ask of them to meet me in a my room. It’s always convenient to meet in the coffee shop, lobby, or restaurant. My room is private and so is theirs.
Honestly, it’s not hard, I’m not scared, and while some of the habits I’ve formed took some deliberation at first I think that they’ve actually turned out to make it easier for us to all feel comfortable and have a very low stress team dynamic.
Over the top precautions are not necessary, and sensible ones are actually helpful in allowing you to work with people of the opposite sex without anyone feeling uncomfortable.
Makes sense to me.
Do you notice how, once he got used to taking these precautions, it actually became easier for everyone to work together? I could actually feel my shoulders relaxing as I imagined working in an environment like this. If is truly your goal to get work done at work, then there can be no objection to adopting these guidelines. You may need to tweak them for your individual job. Hey, at least you get to tweak something.
A final note. It is true that many men are, for the first time, becoming hyper aware of the potential sexual connotations of their working relationships with women. One woman told me, with outrage and incredulity, that her male friends now felt the need to leave the door open when they were alone with a woman in a room.
To this, I say . . . oh, well? It does not seem to me to be overly burdensome to expect men to think twice about the things that many women have to think of all day long.
I am not a paranoiac, and I do not feel as if I’m under constant threat of rape when I leave my home. And yet there are precautions that I take habitually, that I have taken ten thousand times since hitting puberty, just because I am a woman. I have to think about leaving my drink unattended. I have to think about looking around me when I cross a parking lot. I do not go out alone at night. I do not run alone without my cell phone. I am on high alert when I step into an elevator with a man. I am careful about what kinds of jokes I make around men, lest they get the wrong idea. I think about what I am projecting by what I wear. I will sometimes walk out of my way in the supermarket, rather than pass through a group of men whose eyes I don’t like. It’s not especially burdensome. It’s just life.
If minor precautions like this become part of the life of men for the first time in history, I say again, “Oh, well.” If women can survive thinking twice about relationships, then men can, too.
And if innocent men resent having to work so hard to protect themselves in the current cultural climate, then who should they blame? Women who fear being preyed on? Or the predatory men who gave them reason to fear?