As Al Franken Resigns, We Asked This Sexual Harassment Attorney to Discuss Workplace Flirting
Today, Minnesota state U.S. Senator and former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken resigned amid amid seven allegations of sexual misconduct with women and 30 Democratic Senate colleagues publicly calling for his resignation yesterday. The Al Franken resignation is the latest of numerous high-profile departures from government and media that have occurred under accusations of sexual misconduct, and while the accusations against Franken and others have ranged from allegations of non-consensual touching to outright sexual assault, several critics have complained that “You can’t even compliment a co-worker’s appearance these days without being accused of harassment.”
Let’s be clear: This claim is hyperbolic bullshit. None of the high profile resignations occurred under allegations of mere compliments. But even so, we talked to Paula Brantner, a Senior Advisor at the non-profit worker’s rights organization Workplace Fairness, about flirting, dating and romance at work, particularly in sexualized gay business settings like bars, underwear and sex shops.
Brantner is a licensed attorney with over 25 years experience in the field of workplace law and workplace harassment. She is also starting a counseling and coaching service for those who have been harassed and others who need help with their toxic workplace situation.
But first, here’s video of the Al Franken resignation, particularly a part where he blasts accused sexual harassers U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore.
Franken: I am aware of the irony that I am leaving while a man who has bragged about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office pic.twitter.com/g2T9ksadhH
— Axios (@axios) December 7, 2017
For the record, Franken still denies some of the allegations against him, but said, “All women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Hornet: Some people say that they’re now too afraid to tell a co-worker “I like you” or to compliment their appearance — their clothes or hairstyle, for example — over worries that it might be perceived as sexual harassment. Is this a legitimate fear? Is all workplace flirtation sexual harassment?
Brantner: I’d like to step back for a moment and ask: Why do you feel the need to do this at work in the first place? If you’re concerned about crossing the line, then maybe the answer is, “Don’t.”
One of the standards looked at when evaluating whether something might be considered sexual harassment is “Is it unwanted?” If you have any concerns about whether it’s unwanted, whether it’s because your interest in them is not reciprocated, or even because your coworker is one of those people who find compliments make them uncomfortable, there’s nothing that compels you to do this unsolicited.
Some people are just incorrigible flirts (perhaps you’re one?) and can’t seem to help themselves, but maybe — just maybe — not everyone else finds you so charming and irresistible, especially when they have to be around you all day long at work.
Most workplace flirtation — left there — isn’t sexual harassment, but only because it has to be “severe or pervasive.” But that’s just the legal standard, and we’re not going to change the culture of harassment unless we start before something is a legal problem. So dial down the charm and focus on interacting professionally about work matters — not flirting all day long.
Take your time. If your coworker is mutually interested in you, you will have a chance to figure it out without making every interaction you have at work a flirtatious one. And if they’re not, then both of you will be really grateful for the opportunity to avoid any future misunderstandings or harassment complaints.
Although each workplace’s policies on in-office dating differ from workplace to workplace, is it always a bad idea to acknowledge your attraction to a co-worker or to ask them out on a date while in the office? Is there any way to do this without it being construed as possible harassment (especially when you are in a superior job position)?
While it’s not always a bad idea — a stopped clock is right twice a day, and there have been a considerable number of successful workplace romances, marriages, and long-term partnerships, romantic and otherwise — it is more fraught with potential difficulties than romances where you meet or interact elsewhere.
I always advise: What’s the worst that could happen, and are you prepared to deal with it? If one of you was forced to leave your job at that company, or if working together closely post-breakup is unlikely to go well, then how are you going to handle it? Is it worth the sheer life misery that could result? If you’re in the casual dating space, and not looking for a committed relationship, then it’s really important to keep your dating pool outside of work. It’s just not worth it to defecate where you nosh where there’s not a chance of lasting love beyond a few nights.
If you’re so in love that you’re not thinking straight (wait, maybe poor choice of words — let’s call it “not thinking rationally”), then: 1) Find out what the policies are and make sure you comply with them; 2) Wait for the lowest-ranking person to make a move or explicitly indicate interest first; 3) No PDAs (public displays of affection) in the office, sexy chats all day long on your work phone or playing favorites on projects; 4) Explore a change in the reporting structure, but not in a way that harms the career of the underling; 5) Disclose your relationship status on a “need to know” basis, and wait until it’s more than an occasional shag before you start sharing the news with coworkers; 6) Absolutely no discussion of your sex life with another employee while you’re at work, on the company’s email system or with coworkers (especially anyone who works closely with your new love, such as a supervisor or direct report. Just don’t go there — it will not end well.
Gay workplaces like gay bars, underwear/leather shops or publications that regularly cover issues of gay sexuality, can sometimes create a very sexual atmosphere. What’s the best way for one to work in environments where issues of sex, sexuality and nakedness come up regularly without being accused of harassment?
If it’s your work, then treat it like work. Save the sexy banter and the explicit conversations for the customers who consent to it and pay for it — not those whose livelihoods depend on keeping their jobs.
If you’re the boss or in charge, set an example by modeling the interactions you want your colleagues to have. Don’t approach co-workers in vulnerable positions. (Pro tip: if you’re wearing considerably more clothing than the colleague with whom you’re interacting, then it’s not a good time for a consensual conversation — keep it focused on work until you can interact on more equal terms.) Don’t touch or make comments about the bodies of naked or barely-clothed colleagues.
Be very deliberate in your hiring and training practices when providing examples to employees about what kinds of conduct is likely and permissible on the job — and what definitely is not. Have clear policies so that people can report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, and actually enforce them when they’re violated. Take firm stands to protect your employees with customers/clients who cross the line, to make clear that this conduct is also not acceptable between employees in the workplace.
There are appropriate ways to have professional conversations about sexuality, and while it might not be as fun — a harassment complaint filed against you is no barrel of laughs either. Just because your business is about sex doesn’t mean that you or your employees have to put up with sex banter — directed at you while you’re working — all day long.