Even if you believe that you treat all of your co-workers with respect, we currently have an epidemic of sexual harassment in the American workplace that requires heightened awareness, advanced skills for working with the opposite sex, and an abundance of caution.
“I would advise tech professionals to be extra careful about what they say or do to avoid being accused of sexual harassment in the post-Weinstein climate,” advised Kelly Armstrong, senior partner with The Armstrong Law Firm.
According to a recent study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is pervasive. Four in ten women report enduring unwanted advances in a work environment (Uber is a prime example of a workplace gone awry in this regard), which could include everything from a come-on to a gendered insult to sexual assault.
Everyone in America knows that ignorance of the law is no excuse (in case you need a refresher on sexual harassment, here is a brief overview). But just to be sure, here are some prudent ways to avoid being accused of sexual harassment and potentially damaging your career.
Don’t Mix Your Personal and Professional Lives
Dating a subordinate is not only asking for trouble—most companies prohibit the practice outright. But even if your company allows fraternization between “equal level” employees, dating a co-worker probably isn’t a good idea. Things could get dicey if you break up, and most people flirt to test the waters—which could be construed as an unwanted advance.
“Keep things purely professional,” Armstrong recommended. “Avoid acting in a way that suggests that you might be attracted to a subordinate or co-worker.”
Recognize and Tame Subconscious Bias
Sexual harassment isn’t limited to unwanted or annoying advances, explained Patti Perez, an expert on harassment and VP of workplace strategy for Emtrain. Sometimes, people commit sexual harassment without even knowing it.
For instance, calling a female colleague “honey,” “babe” or another pet name can lead to trouble. So can making negative comments about a co-worker’s gender, especially when describing their technical abilities or work product. Staring in a lustful way at an attractive co-worker or making a facial expression is also taboo.
In addition, don’t remark about a co-worker’s appearance or figure to your teammates, or brag about your social life or dating habits. Demeaning others can create a hostile environment, make your co-workers uncomfortable and damage your reputation.
“People who are accused of sexual harassment often act in a way that is boorish or immature,” Perez noted. “Research shows that people who act like a stereotypical frat boy in the workplace don’t get much leeway if they accidently say the wrong thing or curse.”
To avoid being accused of sexual harassment, treat everyone equally and avoid comments that refer to age, appearance or gender.
Mind your P’s and Q’s at Company Events
Armstrong says that, given the current environment, tech pros should steer clear of team-building events, software release celebrations and after-work happy hours.
Of course, avoiding company events altogether can damage your career, as well. As a rule of thumb, limit your alcohol intake, don’t stay too long, and only attend company-sponsored activities, meet-ups or business lunches. To avoid sending mixed messages, limit your physical contact in the workplace to a professional handshake.
Compliment Work, Not Physical Appearance
Recognizing your co-workers for good work is definitely okay, but complimenting a co-worker’s physical appearance, especially if it’s done in a suggestive way, could be construed as sexual harassment. If you’re building a bond with teammates, you’re better off discussing the latest open-source tool, the local sports team, or a new restaurant.
Learning how to work with co-workers without risking a sexual-harassment accusation doesn’t have to be hard. As Perez noted: “It just requires emotional intelligence and new and better ways of expressing yourself.”