It can be difficult to know how men and women are supposed to relate to each other in the workplace these days. What is too much affection, and, God forbid, what is too much touching? I have seen close colleagues in an office awkwardly come together for either a handshake or a hug or a cheek kiss, and it is not certain where the gesture will end up. It resembles some kind of crane-like mating dance, and it is, of course, because they are uncertain about what is appropriate and not appropriate and what is allowed and not allowed. It is painful to watch.
Everyone is a bit confused. How much is too much is being addressed by many law firms today in the wake of the most open and candid conversation about sexual harassment that we ever have had in this country. There is no right or wrong answer to many of the situations posited because firms will differ in their policies from one to the other. And, most of that needs to be left to them. They understand their cultures, and, presumably, they will create policies that are reflective of their people and those cultures.
But, there are a few standard responses to the “what is appropriate” question, and most of them fall better into the category of “what is outrageous” and clearly outside the realm of acceptable. In an article this week by Patricia Hunt Holmes, retired partner at Vinson & Elkins, some of those standard responses are addressed. In calling out “Men in Law,” Ms. Holmes lays out very clearly how women perceive men in the workplace and why the grades are low. Here are some of the nuggets with a bit of my own commentary thrown in:
- Don’t call women by names that you would use for a child — like honey, doll, sweetie and baby. You laugh … but the evidence confirms that it still is happening. Not ancient history like when I was an associate in a law firm and the FEDERAL JUDGE called me “honey.” Definitely a “no no” then, and a “no no” now. Miss or Ma’am will do. It sounds stiff and archaic, but at least it is respectful;
- Stop flirting with every woman in sight. Most women are not interested, and the ones who are should not be — not in the workplace. It almost never works out for them, and they should know it. Keep it conversational and on terms that will allow you to continue to be colleagues without the baggage that comes from awkward sexual innuendo; and
- Keep your door open when you are conferring with a female colleague in your office. Only in situations where security is in question and information is very confidential should you ever close your door to the outside world when you are alone with a woman in your office. It will lead to office rumors and can be very harmful to the woman’s career — not yours. Years ago, when I was a much younger lawyer, the managing partner of the firm always closed his door when he and I met in his office, and my secretary described for me what went on in the hallway outside. Lots of speculating and twittering and a fair amount of jealousy thrown in. That did me no good, and the men should know better. They cannot be that clueless.
It is to her credit that Ms. Holmes takes the role of helping hand as it relates to the men she is addressing. She calls them “good people” and reminds them of how their “missteps” can rob them of meaningful relationships with female colleagues. She also cautions them not to allow the “current hysteria” to cause them to avoid working with women.
I know that the sweetie name calling, the flirting and the behind closed doors treatments sound like something out of a bygone era. However, sadly, think again. There is still a lot of bad stuff going on out there, and you need to have your eyes wide open. These are the obvious ones. It is the subtle ones that really will trip you up.