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Don't Look! Reports of Netflix's 'No Staring' Rule Raise Harassment Questions

A close up of a man with blue eyes.

Whaddya think you're looking at, huh?

Netflix employees reportedly are forbidden to look at each other for longer than five seconds under a strict new anti-harassment policy the online streaming service has rolled out, according to news reports.

Workers also are to refrain from lingering hugs, flirting, asking for a co-worker's phone number unless he or she has given permission to have it distributed, and asking someone out more than once. If the co-worker says no, the employee can't ask again.

Netflix did not confirm whether the no-staring rule is part of its anti-harassment policy or otherwise respond to SHRM Online's request for more information. However, it noted in a statement to SHRM Online, "We're proud of the anti-harassment training we offer to our productions. We want every Netflix production to be a safe and respectful working environment. We believe the resources we offer empower people on our sets to speak up, and shouldn't be trivialized."

[SHRM members-only policy: Harassment: Anti-Harassment Policy and Complaint Procedure]

Earlier this year, the company removed Kevin Spacey from the show "House of Cards," where he was an executive producer and lead actor, after allegations by some employees of assault and inappropriate behavior. Netflix shut down production of the current season and scrapped plans for another show starring Spacey, taking a $39 million loss. And in 2016, the company settled out of court with a former HR director who alleged he was subjected to sexual advances by a male supervisor.

Quartz reported that a Netflix spokeswoman said there is no "staring rule" but that it was a recommendation discussed in a training session.

But whether rules against staring and other behavior exist, the story raises the question of anti-harassment policies and training in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Jonathan A. Segal, a partner with law firm Duane Morris LLP, in Philadelphia and New York City, spoke about sexual harassment during the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition in Chicago this week.

While a leering look may not rise to the level of illegal sexual harassment, it's that type of behavior that can provide the "fertile soil" where future unlawful conduct may take root, he told attendees. Companies should encourage behavior that creates a respectful culture.

James J. McDonald Jr., partner at Fisher Phillips law firm in Irvine, Calif., thinks there is a danger in overbroad policies against harassment or behavior that may be perceived by some as harassment.

"Train managers how to avoid certain circumstances that could lead to trouble, without having to write it down in a strict policy" that is difficult to consistently enforce, he said. For example, co-workers in a business environment shouldn't be hugging, he noted.

"It's not necessary to put [that] into a policy, but it's important to train your managers" and supervisors to refrain from such behavior.

And if two co-workers want to trade phone numbers, that's fairly innocent behavior, he said. However, it can cross the line if, for example, a male manager asks for the phone number of a female employee to contact her after hours. That is the type of behavior best addressed through training.

"Every employer has to communicate [that] unwanted sexual advances, sexual jokes and slurs and those kinds of things are off-limits," he told SHRM Online. "That's the purpose of having a robust policy and training … but to take it beyond that and tell employees that they can't give each other their phone numbers, can't look at each other for more than five seconds … can cast a chill and make it an unpleasant place to work," and be difficult to enforce, McDonald said.

He thinks such overbroad policies damage an organization's culture.

"It says to your employees that they can't be trusted to use good judgment and [display] professionalism with each other, and that can have damaging effects on an organization's culture."

SHRM Position on Sexual-Harassment Policies 

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is working with the National Conference of State Legislatures to provide training to lawmakers and staff on workplace harassment and resolution. In January, SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, testified before the California Legislature on reforming harassment policies and the importance of healthy workplace culture.

"SHRM … believes that any misconduct against an employee should be resolved promptly," according to a SHRM public-policy statement. "SHRM supports a discrimination- and harassment-free workplace. SHRM believes employers should have effective anti-harassment policies that enable thorough investigations of harassment complaints and hold perpetrators accountable. In addition, employers should work toward creating a workplace culture that does not tolerate discrimination or harassment."


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