Many men who like to think they treat women as equals in the workplace are starting to look back at their own behavior and are wondering if they, too, have overstepped at work — in overt or subtle ways that would get them included in a #MeToo post.
SAN FRANCISCO — It has been a confusing season for America’s working men, as the conversation around workplace harassment reveals it to be a nationwide epidemic — and many men wonder if they were involved or ignored the signs.
Consider Owen Cunningham, a director at San Francisco’s KBM-Hogue design firm. When he looks toward the annual corporate holiday party these days, he shudders.
“Cancel the holiday party,” said Cunningham, 37, adding that he means just until it has been figured out how men and women should interact. He said he considered himself progressive on gender issues but was thinking more about the behavior he had seen in the past: “What flirting is OK? Was I ever taking advantage of any meager power I had? You start to wonder.”
Across white-collar workplaces, rank-and-file men are awakening to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault after high-profile cases including those of Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin and Louis C.K. Those cases helped inspire the #MeToo campaign, in which thousands of women have posted about their own harassment experiences on social media. Now many men who like to think they treat women as equals in the workplace are starting to look back at their own behavior and are wondering if they, too, have overstepped at work — in overt or subtle ways that would get them included in a #MeToo post.
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“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” said Nick Matthews, 42, who works at PwC, formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers, and lives in San Francisco. “But has anything I’ve done been interpreted another way?”
In response, some men are forming all-male text groups at companies or in their industries to brainstorm on harassment issues. Some said they planned to be a lot more careful in interacting with women because they felt that the line between friendliness and sexual harassment was too easy to cross. Others are struggling to reconcile how these behaviors could happen even among men who believe in equal rights.
Joel Milton, 30, an entrepreneur in Denver with Baker Technologies, a platform for cannabis dispensaries, said he had recently decided to be more careful about off-site events after seeing the swell of #MeToo claims.
“When I hear someone on my team is having a pool party, now I’ll say, ‘Hey, maybe no managers should be there,’ ” Milton said, relaying the type of information likely to be covered in many companies’ employment manuals.
He added that harassment was not something he had thought much about before, but that he was considering his own behavior more. “Like, did I ever do anything?” he said.
Many companies have long mandated anti-harassment training to educate men and women about the issue. But in a report last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that much of that training was ineffective and that workplace harassment was widely underreported.
Jonathan Segal, a lawyer who was on the commission’s harassment task force, said he was now fielding odd questions from men about how to behave at work. At a fundraiser last month in Palm Beach, Florida, some men asked him if it was permissible to hug a woman and where the boundaries should be drawn.
Segal said he had explained to the men that the context mattered and that pretending there was a gray zone between collegial friendliness and sexual assault was absurd. For instance, he told them, hugging an old friend is very different from going up behind a co-worker while she was at a desk typing.
“If someone can’t understand that, then maybe they just shouldn’t be hugging,” he said.
Segal, who runs anti-harassment training, is now expanding part of the program called Safe Mentoring, which teaches men how to mentor younger women without harassing them. At a recent session, a male supervisor talked about having an extra ticket to a sporting event and feeling he could invite only a male colleague; Segal went over how to invite a female colleague without sexually harassing her.
“The answer to harassment cannot be avoiding women,” he said.
Still, some workers said they were starting to follow “the Pence rule,” which was formerly known as the Billy Graham rule, after the evangelical preacher, but is now named for Vice President Mike Pence. Pence has said he does not eat alone with women who are not his wife or attend an event without her if alcohol will be served.
A conservative writer, Sean Davis, wrote that a lot of men in media should have effectively been heeding the Pence rule all along. He said he had always followed it and that coastal, liberal America was finally waking up to how useful avoiding private meetings with women could be. Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka also made this argument.
“What we’re seeing now is men are backing away from the role that we try to encourage them to play, which is actively mentoring and sponsoring women in the workplace,” said Al Harris, who has been running workplace-equality programs and writing on the topic from Chicago with his partner, Andie Kramer, for many years. “There’s apprehension on the part of men that they’re going to be falsely accused of sexual harassment.”
Just ask your co-workers
Not everyone is practicing avoidance. Some men said the best route is to ask female co-workers directly if they feel harassed. Pat Lencioni, founder of the Table Group in Lafayette, California, which does executive coaching for companies around issues like diversity, said he was doing just that and had asked the women at his office if they worried about harassment.
“I came into the office and said, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got a question for you: This sexual harassment stuff, all these things, do you guys ever worry it’s going to happen here?’ ” Lencioni, 52, recalled. “And they were like: ‘No, because we know you. We know who you are.’ ”
He said he thought this approach could be adopted more broadly.
Other men said they had not talked about workplace harassment with anyone because they already knew what they needed to know. “This is a liberal town,” said Philip Rontell, a real estate agent in Walnut Creek, California, who added that he supported the #MeToo campaign. “We all already know this stuff.”
When men do want to talk about workplace harassment, some said, they don’t know where to go. “I just don’t know where those conversations are allowed to be had,” said Ryan Ellis, 33, a sales manager for an e-commerce company in Santa Monica, California.
Austin Gilbert, a recruiter in San Francisco for the company Gametime, said his industry had also had to deal with men talking in online chat rooms at work, which he said could “bury” and hide toxic comments. His company has closed several “high-school in-group” type of exclusionary work chats over the years, but he worries about more.
“We have a policy of telling employees that we’re free to review all electronic communications,” Gilbert, 31, said. “But that’s typically not anyone’s job responsibility in a small company.”
With women empowered to call out inappropriate behavior, some companies predict that boozy after-work events for the holidays could be combustible this year. While many companies used to have the parties on Thursday or Friday evenings, some are moving them to late Monday or Tuesday afternoons, said Sarah Freedman, vice president of operations for 23 Layers, an event planner in New York whose clients include Google and West Elm.
Open bars are being replaced with game zones. One client recently asked for an extremely watered-down “John Daly” to be the party’s signature drink, which Freeman found strange but probably wise.
After-work events are “the front line” when it comes to harassment, and companies want “more safety precautions” now, she said.