Did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the minister? You better not tell it at my office – or a lot of offices these days.
The partners in my firm were gathered together again for sexual harassment training. The earnest young lawyer talked about recent developments in the law, then she put on a film which, on about a sixth grade level, told us a pat on the back for a job well done constitutes sexual harassment. As management, We’re supposed to be safe persons to whom to report sexual harassment – as well as inappropriate religious jokes or ethnic comments. We then trigger the investigation. The basic message is better safe than sorry – don’t touch anyone you work with – or engage in conversation that touches on race, sex, gender, religion, physical handicaps, etc. Half the people in the room – essentially lawyers aged 35 – 70, were checking emails on their iphones as the earnest young lady spoke. We all knew the drill.
Two hours later, my secretary attended the “staff” session of the same program . At age 64, she found the “training” mildly insulting, and mostly just stupid. She walked into my office afterward, mockingly saying she had to report questionable conduct – while on the elevator, a secretary had touched an attorney. Playing along, I reminded her that I had a duty to investigate to determine whether the contact was inappropriate. So I quietly asked, “Were they going down?” We laughed at the stupidity of the behavior code, and we got back to work.
Several other long time secretaries commented on how lame the “training” was. Our office is not a hotbed of harassment, but most people ignore the code which sounds like it is out of Catholic school in the 50s. Most folks know the difference between office banter and harassment and know how to tell somebody who is taking things too far to knock it off , and most dislike sitting through some fatuous film telling them what they already know.
Why do we go through (and pay for) this Kabuki theater? Because, if a harassment suit is filed, a good defense is that the firm was unaware of the harassment and had in place a harassment policy with regular sessions designed to tell us what behaviors are inappropriate and who we can complain to.
I am old enough to remember when women put up with real workplace harassment. The situation was not good. But, the remedy – establishment of a statutory right to be free from upsetting behavior in the workplace, or any comments based on gender, gender preference, or gender expression, which is defined as a “hostile work environment,” has created a cottage industry paid to teach us what we already know. It is Harassment Theater.