The tidal wave of men in Hollywood, Congress and the media losing their jobs after allegations of sexual harassment has spurred many men in much less lofty positions to worry about their own pasts. Across the country, mid-level managers are racking their brains, rereading their old emails and checking their text message histories to see if they crossed a line.
As an attorney who has handled a number of sexual harassment cases on behalf of the victims, I’d like to say to these men: You can relax, probably.
The allegations made against such figures as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, “Today Show” Anchor Matt Lauer and Congressman John Conyers were not your kind of garden-variety misfired joke or inapt comment. They included, at best, serious abuses of power ranging up to allegations of criminal assault or rape. You are not going to end up in court because you were too enthusiastic when praising the dress the intern wore to the office holiday party.
That’s not to say those remarks are appropriate or that you shouldn’t think hard about how you treat the women in your office. It’s just that the growing fear among some men that sexual harassment laws are being enforced too stringently is misplaced. (One recent AP story featured a man who worried that he “can’t even feel safe saying ‘Good morning’ anymore.” As a lawyer, I’m here to tell you, you can still say that.)
In fact, violations of the law on sexual harassment remain as difficult to prove legally as ever. A hostile work environment claim must involve behavior that is either severe — making your intern watch porn with you, for instance, or pervasive — giving your office intern an overly enthusiastic assessment of her wardrobe multiple times a day, every day.
Second, you are not someone in the public eye (I’m guessing). The allegations against these men were not only clearly illegal, they were very public. In that sense, the legal claims against these men was less a factor in their firings than the public storm created by the allegations forcing companies to act quickly. Companies don’t face the same pressures when considering allegations involving your average middle manager.
So, most men need not stay up at night worrying about their job security simply because they work alongside women. However, it is true that companies — as they should be — will be on high alert for sexual harassment claims for at least as long as the fickle media spotlight stays on them. This means that complaints that previously might have been ignored by HR departments will be moved to the top of the pile. And a woman need not have a winning claim against you to justify your boss from giving you the axe. Still, women are not gleeful about filing harassment claims, even if they have reason to believe they will be listened to now. The process is painful for all involved. So don’t expect your aggrieved intern to run to HR because you commented on her new shoes.
The bottom line: Don’t be a jerk, and you’ll be fine. If you’ve been sort of a jerk, you’ll probably still be fine, but you might want to start making amends and update your resume, just in case.
And if you know your behavior crossed a line — if you constantly commented on women’s appearances, watched porn in the office, asked your female coworkers about their sex lives and told them about yours, kissed women who did not want to be kissed, groped them, rubbed up against them, exposed yourself to them, propositioned them, gave them sex toys as gifts, punished them for resisting your advances or sexually assaulted them — well, you might want to look into getting a lawyer.
And I’ll see you in court, where I’ll be representing the other side.
Tom Spiggle is author of the book “You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace.” He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Va., Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tenn., where he focuses on workplace law helping protect the rights of clients facing pregnancy and caregiver discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination in the workplace. To learn more, visit: https://www.spigglelaw.com.