The slew of high-profile sexual harassment cases in Hollywood, media, politics, tech and elsewhere has led many working men to ask themselves some weighty questions: Is there anything I’ve done in the workplace that would be considered harassment? Do I need to walk on eggshells now when working with women colleagues?
The answers to those questions aren’t as complicated as you might think. As one Twitter user put it recently, just be a decent, respectful human being to all your coworkers:
Alternately, you could use “The Rock Test”: Blogger Anne Victoria Clark recently suggested that men pretend they’re dealing with wrestler-actor The Rock when at a meeting or grabbing coffee with a colleague who just happens to be a woman.
It’s a witty suggestion, but what are some real, concrete ways you can be an ally to the women in your office? Below, workplace and sexual harassment experts share some key tips to help keep things professional.
1. Worried about saying the wrong thing? Use this litmus test.
Relax: You don’t have to be nervous simply having a conversation with a lady colleague. Don’t stop joking around, as long as your jokes aren’t tawdry or sex-related. Just be smart and don’t make any of your colleagues uncomfortable with sexual or unwanted comments.
You could also use an easy litmus test suggested by Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior & Thrive in Your Job.
“When in doubt, ask yourself: ‘Does what I’m about to say further the productivity of the office?’” she said. “You always want to be friendly but don’t test the limits.”
Taylor suggests using your emotional intelligence to gauge what topics fly with your co-workers ― and when in doubt, err on the side of caution.
“A seemingly innocuous compliment can be taken the wrong way, so why take a chance?” she told HuffPost. “If it’s combined with too many other flattering statements or actions, you could be headed down a slippery slope.”
2. Don’t let fear of harassment complaints interfere with you mentoring women in the workplace.
Some men are becoming less likely to mentor women, fearing that one-on-one interaction with female subordinates could be misinterpreted by others and lead to gossip.
As one orthopedic surgeon interviewed by the New York Times put it in a recent feature, “I’m very cautious about it because my livelihood is on the line. If someone in your hospital says you had inappropriate contact with this woman, you get suspended for an investigation, and your life is over. Does that ever leave you?”
Those reservations ― echoed in the NYT article by men in tech, finance and other male-dominated fields ― mean that women lose out on the kind of mentorship and coaching that lead to career advancement, said Susan Strauss, a consultant who coaches businesses on how to avoid sexual harassment and bullying.
“Women are climbing the ladder to break through the glass ceiling ― but it’s a tough ladder to climb,” she said. “They need allies in men because it’s often men who are found in the higher echelons of the organization. If you know the rules that can help women get ahead with promotions and advancements, you should share them.”
3. Your workplace isn’t Tinder. Don’t actively look for your future partner at the office.
Consensual relationships between two co-workers who truly dig each other happen. That said, don’t be on the prowl at the workplace, said Michael Gold, a business psychologist and consultant who has provided therapy to sex offenders through the Illinois Department of Corrections.
“There are literally millions of potential partners available to you; you do not have to date the few people you work with,” he said. “Dating at work can be a minefield of ethical decisions focusing around power differences, consent, culture, communication. Allow your work to be free of subtext and uncomfortable situations, and date people who don’t work with you.”
4. Keep it professional at office parties and after-hours events, too.
Sexual harassment isn’t limited to the confines of your office; if you’re at a holiday party, happy hour, goodbye lunch or traveling on business, the same rules travel with you, Taylor said.
“Be ‘the professional you,’ always,” she said. “That’s especially important to remember during the holidays, when everyone is more tempted to let their hair down in the spirit of ‘friendliness.’”
5. If you see a colleague behaving in an inappropriate way, do something about it.
If you see a co-worker acting out of bounds, you may not have a legal obligation to speak out, but you do have an ethical obligation to say something, Strauss said. Talk to the harasser about what you saw ― and if the behavior is particularly egregious, you may want to consider reporting the person to HR or management.
Should you ask the victim first if you can report the person? Strauss doesn’t think it’s always necessary.
“Some would say it is up to the woman to give permission for it to be reported, and while I understand this line of thinking ― it allows the victim to take some control over her victimization ― I disagree,” she said. “If the incidents do not get reported, it is giving tacit approval for the harasser to continue in his perpetration.”
6. Stay empathetic, especially if you are a supervisor.
Research suggests that as people become more powerful at work, they lose their empathy for others, especially subordinates. Keeping your empathy alive is a great way to stave off sexual harassment, said Sheela Raja, a psychologist and the author of The Sexual Trauma Workbook for Teen Girls: A Guide to Recovery from Sexual Assault and Abuse.
Ask yourself: Would you want someone pressuring you for a date when you’re just trying to make a deadline? How would you feel if you were the subordinate and the person making the sexual request or remark was your boss?
“Or instead of thinking in terms of sex, think in terms of money,” Raja suggested. “Would you continually pressure a friend or co-worker to loan you money? Asking these questions are a great way to keep your empathy skills sharp, which is so important in industries where there is a large power difference between supervisors and the people they supervise.”