I have heard male colleagues say they are terrified to be on a work trip or even alone in a room with a female coworker, for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and winding up accused of sexual harassment.
I admit that when I initially heard this, it was all I could do to bite back the words "Just don't harass people and then there's nothing to be afraid of!!"
But it's more complicated than that. If all you know is what you learned in your obligatory sexual harassment e-course about what NOT to say or do, one could reasonably feel ill-equipped for building healthy professional relationships.
It comes to my attention that as a woman, I have received countless hours of advice (both solicited and not) on how to conduct myself around men in a professional setting. There's plenty of advice out there for women on how to lean in and navigate environments historically run by men.
...but I'm not sure if men have had the same number of opportunities to gain similar education and understanding. So, if you identify with any of the following, this article was written with the sincere intention of being a meaningful tool for you to communicate and collaborate well with your colleagues:
If any of that sounds like you, read on to better understand how to communicate with the people around you in a dignifying and non-threatening manner.
First Things First:Intentional sexual harassment is one thing... but I believe that's not what happens most of the time. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world do not represent the majority of instances of harassment (sexual or otherwise) at work.
But your lack of intention to be a "harasser," will not hold up in court. So it's critical that you have a clear understanding of what harassment and/or sexual harassment are. If you'd like to brush up on your legal understanding of these issues, the EEOC's website has a lot of helpful information.
The HR professionals I work with tell me that they often receive these defenses by male employees when confronted about harassment:
Whether or not these are sincere representations of their intentions/understanding, or the final, desperate pleas from people about to lose their jobs is not something we'll ever know. BUT, you do not need to end up getting fired, or unknowingly causing your co-workers to quit because they feel disrespected and unsafe around you.
How to NOT be That Guy: AKA Honoring Your CoWorkers in Your Communication & CollaborationLet's start with appropriate humor and then cover appropriate compliments. When I do sexual harassment trainings, I use improv as a lens for understanding respectful, appropriate communication at work. Believe me, I love humor! Connecting with people through laughter is great, and so is paying someone you respect a compliment.
But lets be clear about how to do that so that your execution matches your intention.
Laws of Appropriate Humor:
Real life is improv not stand up. Introducing non-sequitur, punch-liney jokes about anything is risky and and not encouraged in the workplace. That type of humor assumes "We all agree about this thing the joke is making fun of." ...never a safe assumption in a professional setting.
Scripted comedy (like stand up or sketch) involves a rigorous editing, revising and peer-review process. It's also introduced to it's audience at a time when they've opted in to that experience. The performers and the audience have agreed to a certain amount of envelope-pushing... that is not the case at work.
Improv is relies on teamwork instead of punchlines. The people you know who are credited with "having a good sense of humor," are not the people running around telling jokes they heard somewhere. They say funny things in response to something that just happened, because they were fully present in that moment, they were listening, and they connected what just happened to something that happened before.
This pattern formation or connection is what makes an "improv joke;" it's the kind of thing that you try to explain later and end up saying "You had to be there." This type of humor doesn't rely on poking fun at someone or something; it relies on making connections and patterns. It is fundamentally different than punchline comedy.
Here's how to build your skill at making "improv jokes" that are funny AND inoffensive (these are the same skills improvisers learn when they first start taking classes):
Do those seem more soul-centered than tangibly practical? TOO BAD! :) Just kidding - the truth is that the more logistical aspects of humor (timing, delivery, stage presence, build up, call backs, uses of silence, misdirection, repetition, denial of expectation, etc) those are all things it's much easier to learn by practicing, say, in an actual improv class!
That is not a joke - community improv classes are more broadly available than ever before, and they're a great way to foster personal and professional development. Google "improv class" and the name of your town -- I bet you'll find something!
Laws of Appropriate Compliments:
I've dedicated a lot of time recently to exploring and teaching the applications of improv for preventing sexual harassment at work. This is the first installment, and it will be followed shortly with content about best practices for work places, and an article specifically about what how to confront a coworker who is unintentionally speaking or behaving in an inappropriate way.
Culture is everyone's job! It's not just up to HR to make office's safe and dignifying for everyone, and it's not just up to women to navigate around the behavior that makes them uncomfortable at work. If you've read to this point, you're likely someone who is very committed to being a protagonist in the age of #MeToo.
Do you have questions that weren't addressed in this article? Feel free to leave a comment or message me directly!
If you'd like more information about my Improv, Ethics and Harassment training, please message me directly.