I won’t pretend to be a legal expert on sexual harassment. Frankly the answer to the question in the title is probably pretty clear in the eyes of the law, but again, I’m not a lawyer so maybe it’s not. Regardless, I’ve found myself in the middle of this conversation several times over the last few weeks; where men are asking, “where is the line between harassment and inappropriate behavior? And where’s the line between inappropriate and appropriate behavior?” The reality is that the line keeps moving. The expectations of behavior in the workplace have changed significantly and rapidly – and many people are having a hard time keeping up with what the new expectations are from their coworkers.

While there are certainly extremes to this issue, I think most people are caught in the crosshairs, somewhere in the middle. I won’t justify the actions of individuals who are guilty of sexual harassment and creating a workplace environment that is toxic, but I also won’t advocate for a workplace that is so overly focused on being politically correct that it becomes devoid of authenticity and real conversation. I think most people genuinely want to do the right thing and are most often well-intentioned in their actions. The issue? They just don’t know where the line is anymore.

While I won’t justify anyone’s actions, old habits do die hard. What was once acceptable behavior, just isn’t anymore. Imagine being 65 and on the edge of retirement – over the course of your more than 40 years in business you’ve always called women you work with “sugar”. It’s part of your vernacular. You do it without even thinking about it and there’s no evil intention underneath it; it’s not meant to make a woman feel inferior, it’s just a term of endearment to you. Imagine now, finding yourself in a workplace where calling a woman “sugar” is offensive – and not knowing it until one day you call the wrong woman “sugar” and you end up in HR with a harassment claim filed against you.

Men now find themselves questioning whether they shut the door in a meeting with a female or go to lunch alone with a female colleague or client. They’re left at a loss of what to do and terrified of crossing this ever-changing line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Meanwhile, women find themselves in the fight of their lives for gender equality in the workplace. Desperately they search for allies and long to be treated in the same way as their male colleagues – but its nearly impossible in a workplace where men are terrified to even engage. It’s actually become more challenging for everyone involved. The line keeps moving.

So now what do we do?

We have to be willing to talk to each other. We have to be willing to communicate, ask questions, and help each other understand where the line exists for each of us.

There are lots of men in the workplace that want to do the right thing. They want to be allies. They want to help women succeed. They don’t want to say or do anything to create an environment where women feel uncomfortable. However, they don’t know where the line is and they need our help to understand what is and isn’t acceptable to us as women in the workplace.

Guys: There are three things you can do to start:

  1. Don’t be afraid to just ask. If you’re unsure about whether the situation or comment would make a colleague uncomfortable, ask her. “I want to make sure we can talk about this project without the distraction of someone popping in my office. Are you ok if I shut the door?”
  2. Pay attention and then Listen. Your female colleagues will give cues when a situation or person is making them uncomfortable. Pay attention when those happen and follow-up about it. “I noticed your body language changed in the meeting yesterday. Something happened, tell me what I missed.” Your job is then to listen, listen, listen.
  3. Call it out. Say something when you see your male colleagues saying or doing things that aren’t appropriate – even when your female coworkers aren’t around. “Hey man, I noticed today that you kept interrupting Sarah in the meeting. You’ve got to let her finish what she’s saying before you respond. She has great thoughts to share.”

Ladies: You’re not totally off the hook either. We have to take responsibility for creating the workplace we desire. Here’s a few things you can do to help:

  1. Speak up. Don’t just silently suffer. If something a coworker said or did, talk to someone about it. Ask your supervisor or mentor how to handle it. Talk directly to the coworker who made you uncomfortable. HR should be used as a last resort, when you don’t get the resolution you hoped for, or only when you believe you’ve been truly harassed.
  2. Educate. Help the men you work with understand where the line is, what makes you uncomfortable, and how they can be a better ally. “I noticed that male client only speaks to you in meetings and not to me. Could you help position me with the client by deferring some of the questions to me, so they know I am the point person?”
  3. Assume Good Intentions. Assume your male colleagues didn’t mean to say or do something that was inappropriate or offensive. Take the time to talk about it without assuming the worst intentions.
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