Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Fun in the Office!

Today's post by Lewis Green over on Marketing Profs is an open letter to some lunkhead who's suing America West for firing him for violating corporate policies on sexual harassment and using company property inappropriately. You never know how these things turn out, but this one sounds like a slam-dunk against the ex-employee. Let's face it, if you want to send your buddies porn-style pictures of women in see-through bikinis, you should do it on your own PC, under your personal e-mail address, over your own connection. And you should keep in mind that your buddies might not like getting this kind of mail at work, so you need to send it to their personal address, too.

Lewis' post did jog my memory of another not-so-clear-cut case of "sexual harassment" I was dragged into at one point.  As this is the time of the year it occurred, here goes.

I wanted to take my team out to lunch to thank them for all their efforts during the year, and to celebrate the holidays. I suggested that, rather than doing a grab, we all bring in a couple of books that we'd liked, put them on the table, and people could take turns picking a "new book" for themselves. I thought this would be interesting, fun, and no pressure.....Hah.

At this point in team history, there was a lone male in the group. One of the books that Larry brought in was a gynecology textbook that had been his wife's in nursing school. Ho, ho. We all groaned and said, "Laaaaar-ee," but someone took it as her choice.

While I was driving her home from the restaurant, a young woman in the group told me that she'd been a little offended by Larry's book. I asked her if she wanted me to say anything to him, and she told me not to bother. Case closed. Or so I thought.

A month or so later, I got a call from an EEOC operative (a.k.a., the sexual harassment police) in the company, telling me that she was investigating a complaint. She couldn't tell me who the complainant was, but I could guess. 

As I found out later from a friend in HR, the young woman who had complained had - weeks after the fact - been down in HR bitching to a friend of hers in HR about how much she made relative to Larry, whose salary she had somehow divined.  (That he was in a more senior position, and had 10 years more experience didn't seem to factor into her thinking.) In the course of her rant, she mentioned the gyno-book incident.  Bing. Bing. Bing.  HR had to report it.

I strongly protested on Larry's behalf for a couple of reasons: The minor and innocuous nature of the "offense." The fact that Larry was a very sweet, sensitive guy who was not trying to be racy or sly, but in his goofy way trying to "fit in" with the women in the group by doing something clumsily "funny." But the real reason I protested was my 100% certainty that the complainant (who was still "anonymous") was motivated by her envy of Larry's salary and position. And by the fact that I was pretty sure that, if the book had been tossed in the heap by anyone other than Larry, she wouldn't have minded. Not that I'm a mind-reader, but this was the same woman who had told me that a senior executive in her prior company had told her an anti-Semitic joke about oral sex that she'd found just hilarious. Hmmmmm.  Gyno book in slightly poor taste vs. grossly offensive and inappropriate joke. You decide which one's worse. But only one managed to bother my little friend.

In any event, everyone on the team ended up being interviewed about "the incident," and Larry ended up with some kind of black-mark warning in his file.

In my heart of hearts, I know that the woman who ratted Larry out was more offended by Larry's very existence than she was by the book. But I also know that the workplace is an increasingly precarious place to navigate when it comes to what's appropriate (and what's funny) and what's not. As I often caution people: you can say something, anything, in front of the wrong person and get in hot water.  Or even have the wrong person overhear you. So best to err on the side of caution and check the questionable comments, jokes, and e-mails at the office door.

Let alone engage in the kind of e-mail low-jinks that are offensive to 99.99% of people in the workplace (and make that six-9's when it comes to women) that were engaged in by America West's favorite ex-employee.

And if there's an office grab or Yankee swap coming up in the next couple of weeks: if you've got an idea that you're even slightly dubious about, forget about it.

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