Knowing how to behave in the #MeToo era

Harassment isn't about your intention. It's about your impact, explains Michael Kaufman.

MICHAEL KAUFMAN: I do speak to some men who say, "God, I feel like I'm walking on eggshells these days." And the sad thing about that, if they are feeling that, is that we lose, I think we lose our intelligence if we're always feeling 'I have to be overcautious or overprotective' or any of that. There is such an important role for just that spontaneity, that just warmth, being able just to relate to our co-workers and others with genuine warmth, where that's possible.

I think part of the confusion is the approach that we've tended to have to matters around sexual harassment. I visited so many companies where they'll say, "We have our policy," and they'll hold up this 1,000 pages of dense legalism, legalese, about 'this is our sexual harassment policy' and it sort of outlines every sort of thing you can't do, and this and that. And it's just nonsense. It's nonsense because that's not the reality of workplace harassment. Or it's not the total reality of workplace harassment.

One of the things I talk about in the book is a framework I developed that I call red light, green light. So think of a traffic light. A red light is very clear. Stop, you don't do this. And so when we think of harassment, yes, you do not offer someone a job in exchange for sex. Now, that's pretty rare actually these days. It still happens. And the stories from Hollywood tells us it still happens. So yes, we need strong rules and regulations and action if we see that so-called quid pro quo harassment happening. That's the red light. We say you cannot do this at work. The green light is also pretty easy to deal with. It means you can be friendly to co-workers. Green lights don't tend to get people into trouble. Think, though, in a city where most accidents happen. Most accidents happen at intersections and they happen when the light is changing. When there's no clear red light or green light; there is this ambiguous orange, yellow, amber whatever you call it light in the middle. And I think that's where our focus a lot of our focus on the prevention of sexual harassment, education and training of managers around sexual harassment has to happen. It's in that amber zone.

So for example, is it OK if I compliment you? Is it OK to say, hey, you're looking good today? Is it OK if I say that outfit is fantastic? Is it OK if I flirt with a co-worker? Is it OK if I ask someone on a date? Is it OK if I touch someone? And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the impact. It depends on exactly what you say, on who you say it to, on your work relationship, on your personal relationship. That touch, it depends on what you touch; that compliment, on your body language, your expression, what you're complimenting, on and on. We've got to focus and these are like the amber light. It's a warning sign so we've got to focus our training of managers and staff on these areas of confusion, of "maybe, maybe not," to really develop language and a sensitivity that harassment is about impact. It's not about your intention. Your intention might be to be wonderful and welcoming; it's not about your intention. It's about impact. And so we've really got to shift our language, our discussion around workplace harassment. Yes, to include the most obvious, blatant things that include, essentially, sexual assault. But we have to go beyond that to include all these more subtle, the amber light, the yellow zone, the orange light whatever we call it area.

  • In the #MeToo era, many men feel they're walking on eggshells and can't say anything anymore.
  • Companies must refocus their policies away from 1,000 page "don't do this" manuals and address the gray areas that are most confusing, like: Can you give a colleague a compliment?
  • Workplace harassment training should focus on the principle that sexual harassment is about impact of your words or actions; it's not about your intention.

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