What If Matt Gaetz Shared Nudes In A 'Regular Office'? Two HR Execs Have Thoughts.

"A middle schooler would know better."

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is being investigated for alleged sex trafficking and sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl ― allegations that he’s denied ― but he’s also facing accusations that he misbehaved in the workplace.

Sources told CNN earlier this month that Gaetz showed nude photos and videos of women he claimed to have slept with to fellow lawmakers and colleagues on the House floor.

“It was a point of pride,” one of the sources told CNN.

Congress is an unusual workplace, but it does have a place for members to report harassment or discrimination: the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Those who report harassment are entitled to a free confidential adviser, and if a member of Congress is found to be at fault, they have to reimburse the government for any monetary award or settlement.

In general, harassment is a form of employment discrimination in the United States that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes, it can be visual: “Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.”

It’s a common claim dealt with by human resources professionals. Beyond laws that protect against harassment, many companies have policies in place that specifically address misconduct. For its part, the House of Representatives launched an ethics probe, prompting Gaetz’s office to deny that the congressman had engaged in any wrongdoing. But what if he had allegedly shared nude images in a “regular” workplace? Does it rise to the level of harassment, if true?

Here’s how two human resources executives would have handled the situation if what Gaetz allegedly did occurred in their own workplaces.

Some responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

“A middle schooler would know better.”

Tracy Cote is the chief people officer of StockX, an online marketplace . She co-wrote a book,People Operations: Automate HR, Design a Great Employee Experience, and Unleash Your Workforce,” slated for release in June.

If what Gaetz allegedly did happened at your organization, how would you evaluate what would happen to the person sharing photos and the staff he shared them with?

As with any allegation of employee misconduct, a fair investigation has to be conducted. You’d want to see what he shared, with whom and, of course, speak to the people subjected to the photos to see how they felt about it. Were they offended? Were the photos inappropriate? Obscene? How would a reasonable person react to seeing these?

Would this constitute a hostile work environment?

Usually one incident on its own isn’t considered a hostile work environment. But that doesn’t mean the person shouldn’t be disciplined or even terminated if it violates company policy... or the rules of common sense and good judgment.

Would disciplinary action be taken?

Common sense dictates that yes, in almost any company, this guy would be subject to disciplinary action and likely terminated as it’s pretty egregious behavior; a middle schooler would know better.

How would that be handled?

If you are sure that the behavior was offensive and against your company policies, norms or values, he likely would be put on a paid or unpaid suspension while the investigation occurs. At the conclusion of the investigation, if the leadership team and employment counsel agree, Mr. Gaetz’s employment would be terminated, and he would not be eligible for rehire.

“This is... pretty cut-and-dried at this point in time.”

Danny Speros is the vice president of people at Zenefits, a software company.

If what Gaetz allegedly did happened at your organization, how would you evaluate what would happen to the person sharing photos and the staff he shared them with?
The first line of questions when I’m faced with something along these lines, it’s just identifying facts: What happened? Who was there? Who did it? What was the situation? Just try to establish a baseline of what happened. Once I have that, then it’s time to get into the more qualitative questions around: How did this come about? What prompted this type of action? Was it spurred on by the person having shown the photos or was it part of a broader conversation that multiple people were a part of? What I’m looking at getting there is: Am I dealing with just one sort of bad actor or is there a cultural or group mentality that needs to be addressed?’

Another thing is to look at the people with whom he shared photos and find out how they felt in the moment about that. It’s one thing if they felt offended; that draws a very direct line to this being a harassment situation. And if they didn’t feel offended, I’d want to understand why. If somebody in the workplace is sharing nude photos with another employee, that’s a problem, regardless of whether someone felt offended in the moment.

Let’s assume he showed it to three other co-workers that all weren’t offended by it. I don’t know that that’s true. I hope that it’s not. But it’s in the workplace now. Everybody that he works with knows that he’s the guy that did that. When something bad happens in the workplace, it gets talked about. People know what actions were taken or not taken, and it’s important to send a message... to anybody who might have been a victim of something along those lines. It doesn’t mean that it needs to publicly be aired across the entire workplace. But in a scenario where the entire workplace knew about it, it’s something to be considered.

Even if you weren’t directly shown the photos, that could impact your ability to work with that person, and honestly do your own job. That kind of thing is why these things become a bigger problem. I don’t want to sit in a close room with somebody who is doing that.

Would this constitute a hostile work environment?
Sexual harassment is outlawed by law. In order for something to be a hostile environment, there’s a couple thresholds. It needs to be something that happens more than once. Because our handbook specifically outlaws it, I think even once would be problematic... . Did he create a hostile work environment with just that one action? Potentially. Does it create liability for the employer where employees could actually have a the claim against the employer for providing a hostile work environment? That comes into play if we knew it happened and we didn’t do anything to prevent it from happening again. Then, absolutely, the employer is on the hook for hostile work environment. One way to prevent that from happening again is just firing the person who’s done that. Other ways may be less dramatic ― warnings, coaching, things along those lines.

Would disciplinary action be taken beyond termination?
There’s a limited number of actions that can be taken. One is to terminate, and everything else is sort of warnings or incremental approaches where you’re hoping to prevent that kind of behavior from happening again, but the person still remains employed.

In a situation like this, about the only other option would be a final warning. It’s a statement of: Here’s the policy that you violated. Here’s the impact it potentially could have on our workplace. Here’s why we take this seriously. If you do this or anything else that’s in violation of a policy in the future, we will look to terminate your employment.

If what Gaetz allegedly did happened in your own company, would you recommend termination?
I can only say that when I’ve been faced with similar situations in the past, that’s been my recommendation. Every situation is taken on a case-by-case basis, and the facts are evaluated. But based on similar situations that I’ve faced in my past at different employers, that’s the way we’ve gone.

This is one of those things that’s pretty cut-and-dried at this point in time.