Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Have We Gone Too Far?

In response to the newly focused attention on prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, companies are taking a myriad of steps to better educate workers at all levels to recognize harassment and to establish guidelines so employees have clarity of what is unacceptable behavior. But, have some employers gone too far?

Last week a number of media outlets reported that the company Netflix had issued an anti-harassment policy that prohibits employees from staring at others for more than five seconds. Netflix staff has also been admonished to avoid lingering hugs, asking people out more than once and to steer clear of that person if they say no.

Before addressing the possible absurdity of a five second stare policy, let’s spend a minute thinking about its probable intent. Often harassing behavior is not overt. It’s actions like always standing too close, touching that may seem inadvertent, extra or unwelcome attention in the way of flattery or seeking to always be paired with one person on work projects, crowding someone in the hallway, being too personal or staring are difficult to categorize. These all can be part of a combination of behaviors that amount to harassment which shouldn’t persist. Or maybe not. But, how effective is the no stare policy and moreover, how can it be enforced? How does anyone (employer or employee) even accurately record the length of a stare? Will Netflix workers be so distracted with keeping an eye on their watches to time the glance of a co-worker (or more likely, keeping an eye on their phones because wearing a watch is rapidly becoming a quaint affectation of older generations), that they forget to pay attention to their actual work? How does an employer investigate a complaint of prolonged staring? The complainant will likely say they counted the seconds and the stare exceeded five. The alleged perpetrator might respond by saying “no, I was counting too, and it was five seconds on the nose.”

The lingering hug, also prohibited by Netflix, is another popular topic in harassment training. In fact, The Wall Street Journal has written no less than five articles on hugging in the workplace in the last year. They even prepared an online tutorial entitled “A Field Guide to Corporate Hugging” which describes how to appropriately hug in the workplace and contains descriptions of hugs such as the “HR Hug” which is a one armed side hug recommended for use by HR staff to avoid inappropriate contact while presumably still conveying sympathy and support. The newspaper also devoted an entire article to the topic of whether to hug interns and how interns can avoid hugs (spin as you enter the hug so you can easily spin out of it).

So, the question is whether these types of policies and training will help prevent harassment or have we gone too far in trying to regulate behavior? It is reminiscent of the sad refrain years ago when workplace sexual harassment first came to the consciousness of workers. Back then people (mostly men) complained that they would be in trouble if they told a female co-worker that she looked nice or was dressed nice. That wasn’t ever true anymore than it would be true now that any stare of more than five seconds is an automatic anti-harassment policy violation. It is simply employers’ attempts to keep their workers well away from the line that crosses employees into harassing conduct. Long stares, by themselves, will likely never violate the law prohibiting sexual harassment, but employers want to make sure that their policies prohibit behavior that even comes close to the legal definition of harassment. Their efforts are laudable, even if they turn out to be misguided. If nothing else, these policies keep the discussion going.