Watch what you say and do

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The good news is that people no longer have to accept harassment in the workplace.

The bad news is that workers, especially those in a supervisory position, have to be concerned that what they may regard as innocent humor or an attempt to kindle a workplace romance may be offensive.

A person who crosses a subjectively defined and fuzzy line could face severe consequences, including the loss of a job.

This is the price we pay for current laws that attempt to eliminate the helplessness many employees once felt in the face of insulting humor or persistent and degrading sexual advances.

We are aware that it is possible for an alleged victim to cynically use the laws for advantage. We hope that someone claiming to be a victim would take some steps to change the work environment before making a formal complaint about what could be viewed in different ways by different people.

However, the law does serve to correct conditions that have historically been, at best, the burden of an employee to prove and, at worst, the prerogative of an employer or a physically stronger coworker to create.

The pendulum has swung and it is now the burden of the accused to establish innocence if there is at least some evidence of questionable behavior.

Ideally, a person should avoid any situation that could be construed as in poor taste or potentially intimidating to a colleague. As a practical matter, a person should be sensitive to subtle signals of colleagues when humor is used.

If a person must explore the possibility of pursuing a workplace romance, the person should proceed with caution and NOT follow the adage that "persistence pays off."

The workplace does not have to be a humorless and paranoid environment but a sophisticated awareness of complex dangers is needed.