Putting Humanity into HR Compliance: During #MeToo Movement, Replace Avoidance with Common Sense

 

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. May 6, 2019
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​An unfortunate consequence of the #MeToo movement is that some male executives and managers say they now try to avoid female colleagues in the workplace. In adherence to the "Pence rule," named after Vice President Mike Pence, who has said he will not be alone with a woman who is not his wife, some men have begun to limit their interactions with women to whom they aren't married. I call it the "avoidance rule."

Even if a person's adherence to the avoidance rule is sparked by a genuine fear of being accused of sexual harassment, whether the practitioner is male or female, its impact is highly problematic.

This column makes the case for replacing the avoidance rule with the "common sense rule."

The closed-door meeting that bosses won't have with their direct reports signals a lack of trust. The business meals that supervisors avoid sharing with lower-level employees result in lost opportunities for mentoring, coaching and developing stronger working relationships. Not traveling on the client visit or business trip impairs a mentee's ability to build his or her network and gain valuable experience.

As a former management-side attorney, I defended many sexual-harassment claims I didn't consider valid. Based on the evidence, I believed the plaintiffs in those cases manipulated and even invented facts to sustain their claims.

However, in all of these cases, the accused at some point crossed a line from strictly professional behavior. He or she engaged in sexual comments or behavior, and at times all indications suggested that the conduct was welcome. In some cases, the accused individuals were responding to sexual overtures. In many, they became involved in romantic or sexual relationships that began consensually but later became hostile.

However, had they followed the common sense rule, they never would have been subjected to the U.S. legal system. This rule is simple: In all interactions, remain strictly professional—no sexual comments or behavior of any kind, no matter how welcome the conduct might seem at the time.

The common sense rule covers the following scenarios:

Alcohol

I can't begin to list the number of times alcohol consumption played a role in harassment claims. Go ahead and have that meal, client visit or business trip together. Just remember that each drink dramatically increases the likelihood of subsequent regrettable behavior.

Resist the Allure

A longtime CEO once said to me, "I was talking to these two good-looking girls in our marketing department. They said I look sexy for an old man." 

The CEO smiled as he said this.

But this "compliment" wasn't a good thing. When executives receive remarks like this, instead of feeling flattered, they need to put an end to the behavior and interaction.

In my career, I've had numerous closed-door meetings, meals and business trips with women, including women who reported to me at the time. Their behavior was always professional, and none of these meetings, meals or trips ever resulted in some form of accusation. 

I encourage executives, managers and others to replace the avoidance rule with the common sense rule. If you assume any sexual conduct from you is unwelcome, no matter the circumstances; if you don't respond to sexual conduct toward you other than to request that it stop; and if you become wary of alcohol consumption while interacting with colleagues, you'll have nothing to fear from a sexual-harassment claim. 

Unlike the avoidance rule, the common sense rule carries no business, social or career costs. It protects those in supervisory and executive-level positions and affords subordinates equal opportunity to professional growth and advancement.

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