How can we return to a more normal normal?
If there have been any benefits from the COVID quarantine, one is certainly the decline in workplace harassment stories. But as we start returning to work, should we expect the same old problems to start resurfacing?
The question we need to ask is this: what measures can we put in place to protect ourselves and protect others? Here are a few commonsense curatives for the pandemic of predators in the workplace.
Don’t go it alone. Vice President Mike Pence was widely mocked and ridiculed after disclosing that he doesn’t dine alone with other women. But there is safety in numbers, and the mere presence of others reminds us to behave better. Keep private interactions semi-public, and you’re far less likely to end up in compromising positions.
No flirting. Sure, it’s fun. Like a little kid whisking his finger through a flame, we love to skirt the edges of propriety with winks, raised eyebrows and ambiguously provocative remarks. But it’s a short step onto a very slippery slope, and a little sensual sparring can quickly spiral from cute and clever to distasteful and dangerous.
Watch your tongue. HBO and Showtime have made the worst kind of language positively pedestrian. But there used to be seven words you couldn’t hear on television for good reason. Refinement of language reinforces refined behavior, and the more acceptable foul vocabulary becomes, the more likely we are to cross the boundaries of suggestive, harassing and bullying speech as well.
Look professional. The way we dress sends a signal about how we expect to be treated. The more casual the attire, the looser the standards. This applies to both productivity and personal interaction. A professional-looking workplace promotes professional behavior in every area.
Keep your hands to yourself. Aside from a formal handshake, touching has little place in any professional setting. Some people don’t like being touched but are reluctant to say so. And unwanted or inappropriate contact is just another way of violating boundaries. Do you want people to think of you as “creepy”? Did you just find yourself thinking about certain public figures who have made headlines because they can’t keep their hands to themselves?
Don’t turn a blind eye. It’s easy to convince ourselves that a remark or action really meant nothing. We don’t want to look petty, and we don’t want to make something big out of something small. But if a colleague acts in a way that offends you, take that person to one side and politely say you didn’t appreciate it, and please not to act that way again.
Have each other’s backs. It’s no different when we witness or learn of misbehavior toward others. It’s hard to stand up for ourselves, especially when we aren’t sure if we can count on those around us to come to our defense. Letting others know that you’re there for them when they need you empowers everyone and creates a bulwark against predatory behavior.
Document. You can let a single, minor incident roll off your shoulders. But if it’s egregious, or if a pattern of behavior begins to emerge, make sure to keep a detailed record in real time, in the form of personal emails, a personal diary and, if necessary, complaints to superiors.
Don’t over-react. As diligent as we have to be, we also have to be careful not to go overboard. In our politically correct society, too many people are eager to find misconduct everywhere, whether it’s racial, sexual, or ideological. Occasionally, we all have poor judgment, and putting an offender on alert quietly and privately is probably enough for most first-offenses. Hitting the nuclear button at the slightest whiff of innuendo may end up being more harmful than helpful to a collaborative culture. If we’re all walking on eggshells, none of us is going to get very far.
Don’t believe it can’t happen to you. The headlines and history are littered with stories of people who never thought they could become victims or never imagined they would become oppressors – not to mention never believing they could be called out or brought down. When we think it can’t happen to us, the chances rocket upward that it will happen to us.
King Solomon teaches that wisdom walks in the ways of integrity and follows the paths of justice.
We can save ourselves from much folly by acknowledging the pitfalls that lie before us and disciplining ourselves to avoid them.
The first step is to recognize that all of us are capable of committing acts of gross impropriety and that any of us can be tripped by the temptations of ego and opportunism if we let down our guard. Only when we hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct do we have the right to expect as much from others.