Inventing a New Workplace Etiquette

THE scene is a suburban office in the Midwest. A young woman and a male co-worker are chatting during an afternoon break. She tells him she needs to find homes for two kittens and asks if he'd like to adopt one. Instantly, almost reflexively, he responds with raw and suggestive comments, followed by a coarse laugh.Shocked and offended, the young woman registers her disapproval. But instead of apologizing, the man turns the blame on her, accusing her of having a dirty mind. She returns to her desk, but for the rest of the day she can think of little else. As the newest and youngest employee at the company, the woman tells no one in the office about the incident. But when she recounts the experience to a friend and then to two family members, all three find the remarks offensive and inappropriate. A week later, her supervisor happens to mention the man's name in a casual conversation. Only then does the woman quietly relate the incident. To her surprise, the next day the supervisor summons her to her office, where she finds the office manager and the man who made the remarks. He hands her an apology card and tells her he's sorry. She thanks him, and everyone returns to work. No one ever mentions the incident again, and from then on the man treats her with respect. Case closed. If all questions of improper behavior, real or perceived, were resolved as quickly as this one, offices and factories would be friendlier places for women. But the confusion, anguish, and embarrassment surrounding even this minor case serve as reminders that despite legal protections against sexual harassment, the workplace climate remains murky at best. In this instance, although the young woman appreciated the decisive support of her boss, she continued to feel troubled by the episode, wondering: Did she err in mentioning it? Did she inadvertently cast a shadow on the man's employment record? Did the rest of the office find out? The most visible and sensational cases of sexual harassment - those that end up in court or in headlines - usually involve a man who holds a more powerful position and a woman who works under him. Sexual favors may become a real or implied exchange for promotion or continued employment. Largely invisible are the vast majority of cases that involve co-workers. Even though no job or promotion is at stake, the female employee still fears ridicule or reprisals if she speaks up. How many women silently and repeatedly endure suggestive comments or physical contact - a hand on the shoulder, a squeeze on the neck? How many women, if they do object, get accused of lacking a sense of humor? ("What's the matter, can't you take a joke?" the man in the Midwestern office asked the young woman.) And how many women feel - or are made to feel - that the unwanted attention is somehow their fault - that they "asked for it"? For men, the rules can be equally confusing. Is it acceptable to compliment a woman on the blouse she is wearing? Is it all right to repeat a mild double-entendre at the copy machine? Where does friendly attention or playful teasing end and harassment begin? The answers vary from woman to woman, adding to the confusion. Harassing in its nonphysical stages is so much a matter of tone and nuance that it is currently defined only by its effects. The one harassed feels a sense of "hostility." Make no mistake. However genial harassment may pretend to be, at its worst it can feel like the rehearsal for date rape. What is the solution? More awareness. More recognition of the menace being experienced, the anger being felt. More willingness on the part of women to speak up to their harassers. Lots of spotlights. The process is inexact. It can be unjust to the accused - that too must be recognized and guarded against. But the reform cannot be stopped. A generation that has tended to boast of its all-sufficient "sensitivity" and to define manners as obsolete is finding it necessary to reinvent etiquette, those rules of behavior that at least imitate an upright heart. At its most basic, the sexual harassment furor is about reaffirming simple courtesy as the first line of defense against workplace bullying.

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