Episode 59 – Sexual Harassment and #MeToo: Advice to Project Managers

Episode #59
Original Air Date: 06.18.2018

40 min

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Our Guest This Episode: Sarah Lamar

How can you avoid sexual harassment claims? “Common sense and respect get you about 90% there.” That’s a sample of the advice from our guest, Sarah Lamar. Sarah is a distinguished attorney and partner with Hunter Maclean where she specializes in employment law. Sarah joins the Manage This crew to offer valuable advice on this topic.

Sarah has experience in state and federal courts in the areas of discrimination, harassment, wage-hour questions, breach of contract, and tort claims. She also conducts in-house training for employers and advises clients on a variety of employment law issues, including immigration and affirmative action. She received her B.A. degree from Yale University and her law degree from Emory University. Sarah is currently the co-chair of the State of Georgia Society for Human Resource Management: Government Affairs Committee; and a past chair of Alpha International, a global legal networking organization.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal prompted similar revelations of misconduct by many actors, comedians, celebrities, politicians, and .com executives. Public outrage led to the #MeToo movement. How does this impact project managers? How should we lead our teams? What behaviors are acceptable, and what is not? What if a team member receives unwelcome behavior from a customer or vendor? What should the PM do? We must take this responsibility seriously. As Sarah states: “Once the project manager knows, the company knows.” Listen in as Sarah walks us through scenarios and offers valuable insights.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"I always like to say that common sense and respect get you about 90 percent there to avoid sexual harassment claims.  I also like to say that, if that gets you 90 percent, not talking about people’s appearance or their body parts can get you at least 5 percent further."

- Sarah Lamar

"If you’re a responsible project manager, the first thing is know what the policies say and make sure your team knows."

- Sarah Lamar

“It might all be innocent and a way of communicating with people. But in the work environment, everyone in America is in a very diverse environment. They do not know where people are from, what background they have, what baggage they have. Even if someone looks like you, talks like you, even acts like you, you don’t know that they’re like you. So you can’t presume that it’s okay.”

- Sarah Lamar

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“I always like to say that common sense and respect get you about 90 percent there to avoid sexual harassment claims.” – Sarah Lamar

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Every two weeks we meet and talk about what matters to you as a professional project manager.  Whether you’re a newcomer to the field or a seasoned professional, we offer opinions, advice, and real-life experiences from those who are right there in the trenches right now and those who have been there before.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are two who have been there before and lived to tell about it, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.  And today, Andy, we’re going to lay down the law when it comes to business and corporate environments.

ANDY CROWE:  You know what, Nick, we’re really fortunate to have an expert in an area that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days.

NICK WALKER:  Our guest is Sarah Lamar, a partner with the Savannah law firm of HunterMaclean, where she practices in the area of employment law.  Sarah has experience in state and federal courts in the areas of discrimination, harassment, wage-hour questions, breach of contract, and tort claims.  She also conducts in-house training for employers and advises clients on a variety of employment law issues, including immigration and affirmative action.

She received her B.A. degree from Yale University and her law degree from Emory University.  Sarah is currently the co-chair of the State of Georgia Society for Human Resource Management: Government Affairs Committee; and a past chair of Alpha International, a global legal networking organization.  Sarah, it is a privilege to have you here with us on Manage This.

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, thank you.  I’m thrilled to be here.

NICK WALKER:  Now, there are so many topics that we hope to get into, and we could get into right off the bat.  But maybe this would be a good place to start.  We’ve seen over the past year so many publicized cases of sexual harassment and discrimination as more individuals come forward with complaints.  Is this a problem that is becoming more widespread, or is it just simply the reporting and the prosecution of it that’s increased?

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, that’s a good question.  I think that for the most part this is an issue that has just been more widely reported, and the awareness of harassment has increased over the last, really, only since about October 15th, which was when the #MeToo movement went viral.  And in fact it had been a movement.  It was a thing before October 15th.  The movement #MeToo was started in ‘06 by an activist trying to address sexual harassment and abuse.  But when the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted on October 15th words to the effect of, “If you’ve been harassed or abused, tweet back #MeToo,” that’s when it really took off and went viral.  And that tweet was about a complaint regarding Harvey Weinstein that had been reported in the media.

NICK WALKER:  Do you think there are still some people who don’t really understand what sexual harassment is?  I mean, is there a working definition we can go with?

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, yes.  There’s a working legal definition.  And I’ll spare you the legal geekdom on all of that.  But the essence of it is that someone is subject to unwelcome harassment, unwelcome behavior based on sex, that creates a severe and pervasive change in their working environment.  And then there has to be a way for the employer to become liable.  That’s the definition that comes from federal civil rights law.  There are some other definitions that come into play with criminal law or other claims.  But that’s the fundamental definition.  Were you subjected to unwelcome conduct that severely and pervasively interfered with your working environment?  And essentially was the employer involved, or did they know about it?

NICK WALKER:  Now, this is something obviously that project managers need to be aware of.  They need to be thinking about it.  So let’s kind of go from that point of view.  Sometimes there are project managers in teams that are employees, employers, that sort of relationship.  Sometimes they’re private contractors that come together.  Are the definitions different?  Are the legalities of that different depending on the situation?

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, Nick, that’s a really good question because the law is different depending on who is the victim of the harassment.  So, for instance, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment, only covers employees.  So if you’re an independent contractor, and you feel you’ve been subjected to harassment, that is not a route that you can take. So you would need to look to state laws to try to address concerns of harassment.

So in the project manager environment, when you have all sorts of folks working together who are not all in the same employer hierarchy, it becomes a more complicated proposition.  And so if you have, say, contractors sitting in a room, and none of them work for the same entity, and one does something toward another that that person thinks is inappropriate, the lines are often gray about where that person would go to complain.  And I think in that regard it really depends on the circumstances.  Are the folks peers, or is there a clear power differential?  And who else is there to make a complaint to?

BILL YATES:  Sarah, I have a question for you, and I’m thinking it is so nice to have an expert in the room on this topic because this is so much in our face today in the media, and it’s such an important movement.  But it also brings fear to the project manager of, okay, I don’t know what’s okay and what’s not okay.  What can I control?  What am I responsible for?  Project managers are very risk-averse.  This is a huge risk.

ANDY CROWE:  The good ones, the ones who have made it.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, that’s right, those who are still employed.  So for the risk-averse project manager, let’s start with the team first.  Let’s start out with the basics of let’s say I have a team.  The project manager is leading a team of those who are employed by the same company.  What advice do we have to that project manager to create a safe environment where sexual harassment is not tolerated, it’s communicated that way, and if there are any exceptions, anything that needs to be dealt with?  So what advice do we have in that scenario?

SARAH LAMAR:  So for starters, I always like to say that common sense and respect get you about 90 percent there to avoid sexual harassment claims.  I also like to say that, if that gets you 90 percent, not talking about people’s appearance or their body parts can get you at least 5 percent further.

BILL YATES:  Right.

SARAH LAMAR:  So if you take those basic tenets, you are doing fabulously to begin with.  But beyond that, making sure that your company has policies that prohibit sexual harassment.  And let me just say there’s other types of harassment out there, too.  So there could be religious, racial, national origin, ageist harassment.  But I know that our focus this morning is on sexual harassment.  So having policies prohibiting harassment and making sure they are clearly distributed and understood by your staff.  So unfortunately there are some companies that have these very robust employee handbooks that might be 50, 75, 100 pages long.  And they are on a shelf, gathering dust.  And if you asked anybody in management, except perhaps the human resource professional, no one would know exactly what they say.  So that’s a problem.  So if you’re a responsible project manager, the first thing is know what the policies say and make sure your team knows.

BILL YATES:  Good.

ANDY CROWE:  You know, that’s a common theme for project managers.  A lot of times there’s very robust methodologies that sit on a shelf.  There are very robust processes that have accumulated over the years.  And one of the things that happens with policies and processes, they’re rarely retired.  They just get bigger and more robust.  But then people rarely pay attention to them.  So then it becomes – a large issue becomes the culture.  And people observe when they come into a work environment, they may know the policies, but people may or may not follow them.

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, you’re exactly right.  And just going back to the policies for one minute, in my litigation experience when defending companies who are in lawsuits for these and other types of claims, if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.  So one very important thing – and this might not be the project manager’s job.  But the project manager, if they’re diligent, should make sure that this has been done with human resources or somebody else, that there is a sign-off on the handbook.  That everyone’s file has a note that says they have received this handbook.  Because then at least you can say, okay, they did receive the handbook.  And in those policies, clearly saying who do I go to complain to is very, very important.  And it can’t just be one person.  It can’t just be the manager or the supervisor because they might be the problem.  So it has to be a multiplicity of people.  But getting back to your point, a policy is no good if it’s not enforced, if it’s not distributed, if it’s not understood.

ANDY CROWE:  So I’m a project manager.  Maybe we don’t have a sexual harassment policy, but project managers are not used to saying “That’s not my job” in general.  We have to solve problems.  So, Bill, what do you do if you’re a project manager, and you don’t have a quality policy?

BILL YATES:  You have to create one.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.  You have to write one which tells how quality is going to be implemented on your project.  I don’t think that’s a good approach in this case, to go write your own sexual harassment policy just based on…

BILL YATES:  Whatever, yeah.  I googled it.

ANDY CROWE:  …whatever your values may be.  Yeah, just pull something off the Internet.  Sarah, let’s take a company that’s, I don’t know, 20 people, and so it’s big enough to be on the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s radar.  You don’t get a free pass because you’re a small company.  But you also probably don’t have a big robust HR department, being that size.  Where do you start with something like that?

SARAH LAMAR:  So a couple of options.  The first would be going to a human resource trade organization like SHRM.  Nick mentioned them before:  Society of Human Resource Management.  They have a lot of info on their website, and there are local chapters all over the country.  The second option might be deemed a shameless plug for the employment lawyers out there.  But it is finding an employment lawyer who you can trust, who can draft something.  And it does not have to be more than a couple pages.  And they can help you with other policies, as well.  So seeking professional assistance in preparing these policies because these are legal policies.  They’re not just feel-good, “Hey, be good to each other” type policies.  They are things that are going to be submitted to the EEOC or a court to say, in essence, we did the right thing.  We told folks about what was allowed in our workplace, what behavior was prohibited, and where to go to make a complaint.

BILL YATES:  Good.  Sarah, the project managers are accustomed to managing people.  That’s a part of the job.  The stakes are just higher here.  So let’s say we do have our policy in place.  And now that project manager observes bad behavior, or it’s brought to their attention.  What steps should they take?

SARAH LAMAR:  If a project manager sees a behavior that could be a violation of the company policy, or just makes them concerned that it’s inappropriate for the workplace, I do not recommend waiting for someone to make a complaint.

BILL YATES:  Good.

SARAH LAMAR:  Because once the project manager knows, the company knows because the project manager is a representation of the company.  And what the project manager does really depends on what the behavior is.  Let’s say everybody’s eating lunch together at the site during a break, and one peer says to another an inappropriate comment, and the project manager is sitting there with them.  That best approach under those circumstances might be to say, “Hey there, don’t say that again; that’s rude,” or “That’s not appropriate for the workplace.”  That might be all the project manager needs to do to address that issue.

If something more serious occurs, for instance one employee goes to the project manager to say, “I think I’m being harassed; this is what’s happened,” then the obligations are going to be greater on the project manager.  And if you’re a smaller company, for instance, and you don’t have an HR department, then you might be the one doing the investigation.  And you might need to talk the victim, the accused, any witnesses.  So many cases these days involve texting and misbehavior on social media.  So were there texts involved?  Were there emails?  Is there any documentary evidence?

And then ultimately the company, whether it’s the project manager or another investigator within the company, has to make a difficult decision about the credibility of the folks.  Did this happen?  Didn’t it happen?  And what do we do about it?

ANDY CROWE:  So I’ve got a question for you, and this is an interesting one in my mind.  A lot of organizations that perform projects do it in what’s called a “matrix” type organization.  So now the project manager doesn’t really – these resources don’t report to him or her.  They’re a dotted line.  So they have other managers who manage their career and manage their benefits and things like that – their time, their vacation, their schedule, their training.  But the PM will manage them for a period of time on tasks.  And so that’s called a “matrix organization.”

So during that time I may report to Bill.  He’s my project manager.  I have a dotted line to him, in a sense, and it gets really complicated in terms of but now we’re spending 10 hours a day on this project every day.  And so now do I report an incident to him?  If I see something, if something happens to me, do I go to my manager?  Where does the project manager’s responsibility begin and end in that?  It’s kind of an interesting question.

SARAH LAMAR:  It is.  And when I do management training for companies, one of the points I try to get across is you may not be the person taking this over the finish line.  You may be just the person who reports it to the employee’s actual quote/unquote “manager” or to human resources.  But your most important role is to report and make others aware because then the company and the responsible people within the company can take action.

ANDY CROWE:  And I would say probably in writing; wouldn’t you?

SARAH LAMAR:  Yes but by email, follow up.  And there the important fact is promptly, immediately even.  If someone comes to you and says, “I think someone’s harassing me,” you need to not wait till the end of the day.  You don’t need to go on vacation first.  You don’t need to go to lunch first.  You’ve got to deal with it and report it.

ANDY CROWE:  Right, right.

BILL YATES:  Do not pass go.

SARAH LAMAR:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  Sarah, I want to ask you in this, you made a comment a moment ago that it’s a bad idea to comment on somebody’s body parts, things like that.  So I agree.  Now, how does dress code play into this or inform this?  Does that have to be part of the policy?  Does that have to be well defined and documented?

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, many companies have dress codes, and many are written.  Some are simply just kind of the informal culture of the organization.  If someone is violating a well-established dress code, then you obviously have a right to address that with them.  But if someone is dressing in a manner that you want to comment on outside of that dress code?

ANDY CROWE:  Maybe it’s distracting.  Let’s just say that.

SARAH LAMAR:  Right.  It might be distracting.  And there have been scenarios where folks are not complying with the dress code, and they’re wearing revealing clothing.  And that needs to be addressed if it violates the dress code.

ANDY CROWE:  We don’t have a dress code here today, and it makes me wonder if we should.  At the same time, I hate doing that.  And then how specific do you get?  Because a lot of it’s subjective, too.  And that gets tricky.

SARAH LAMAR:  It is subjective.  And I’ve seen dress codes that get down to no open-toed shoes, no strappy sandals, I mean, they can get very, very specific.  Of course, if you’re in a construction environment, you hope you’re not wearing…

ANDY CROWE:  Food service environment is different.

SARAH LAMAR:  Right, open-toed shoes, that’s not good.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, different things.

SARAH LAMAR:  But I think the point about dressing and commenting on people’s dress, this is what gets lots of folks in trouble, saying, not, “Hey, you look nice today.”  That really doesn’t get people in that much trouble, nor should it.  That’s just a compliment, a very benign statement.  But saying more than that, and commenting on how short their skirt is or how low their blouse is cut or even people’s weight or how they’ve redone their hair, all those types of things can make people uncomfortable.  And it’s just not – you don’t need to say that to get the job done and work in a pleasant environment.

ANDY CROWE:  That hair comment’s interesting because I’ve probably done that, certainly not – no, I’m sure I’ve commented on somebody when they changed their hairstyle.

NICK WALKER:  I love your hair today, by the way.

ANDY CROWE:  Thank you, Nick.  Well, and people will comment, you know, when I come into the office, “Hey, you got a haircut today.”  So it’s an interesting thing that that now comes into play that best just to not…

BILL YATES:  I have a follow-up on that, too.  Here’s one that I struggle with.  What about the huggers out in the world?

SARAH LAMAR:  Oh, I’m so glad you raised that.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So here’s where I’m at with that.  For the huggers in the world, my advice has been – and this is to me, I’m speaking to myself – now I just give high fives.  So I give a high five or a fist bump.  What advice can you – can you help us out here?

SARAH LAMAR:  I have no problem with high fives and fist bumps.  I will say that the hugger – you call them the “huggers”; I call them the touchy-feely types.  And in my experience, the touchy-feely types almost never mean anything inappropriate or creepy by their actions.  But they need to understand that, in the work environment, a lot of people don’t want to be hugged.  They don’t want to be squeezed around the waist.  They don’t want to have that handshake that lasts just a little too long.  They don’t want their shoulders massaged.

And it might all be innocent and a way of communicating with people.  But in the work environment, everyone in America is in a very diverse environment.  They do not know where people are from, what background they have, what baggage they have.  Even if someone looks like you, talks like you, even acts like you, you don’t know that they’re like you.

BILL YATES:  Right.

SARAH LAMAR:  So you can’t presume that it’s okay.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  I want to expand on that a little bit.  And this gets into that tricky area.  I’ve got a friend who works in a warehouse environment.  And this warehouse environment is predominantly male.  And so the men are – a lot of them are ex-military.  They’re rather physical with each other in a type of camaraderie, in the sense of camaraderie with each other.  So there’s a lot of touching, a lot of patting on the shoulders, that type of thing.  But they’ve decided that, for the women in that warehouse, there’s zero of that.  There will be no such contact, no such playful whatever.

And so the interesting thing for me is this creates sort of another problem in and of itself, in that there’s a camaraderie among the guys that develops, and the women they don’t touch.  They don’t shake hands, they don’t fist bump, they don’t hug, they don’t do any of that because they’re scared, quite honestly.  They’re trying to err on the side of caution.  But, now, if I were a woman in that environment, in a sense I would feel like I was being ostracized.  It almost creates another problem by itself.  How do you navigate that?

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, that is an excellent point, and I think that’s a real phenomenon that can occur in workplaces where there is perhaps a misunderstanding or a paranoia about sex harassment and the treatment of different genders, women and men in the workplace.  So I do think that’s a potential problem, that the men may have a much more jocular, friendly, informal relationship, and then with the women it’s much more formal.  And that could lead to concerns that are greater than simply harassment because I don’t think you have a harassment issue there.  What you might have is a concern over sex discrimination.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah, you have a boys’ club now.

SARAH LAMAR:  You have a boys’ club, and you then promote the people who you’re buddies with and not the ones who you don’t know very well.  You don’t want to go to lunch with the women because that may be seen as strange.  So then you only go to lunch with your buddies, and then you don’t know the women.  So when it comes to pay increases and promotions and advancement within the company, you’re not thinking of the women.  And this is all, of course, hypothetical.  But I do think that’s an issue.  So trying to treat everybody the same consistently is really the goal, and not going in one direction or another.

BILL YATES:  I have a follow-up question on that.  You prompted a memory of one thing that I really wanted to bring up.  Project managers have a lot of needs for meetings.  Sometimes there’s a bunch of people in the meeting.  Sometimes it’s a one on one.  And it could be with a team member, another employer or employee; or it could be with a contractor or with the customer.  Give us some advice for, let’s say it’s a female project manager, and she’s meeting with a male team member who’s a subordinate.  You could flip it, but let’s use that example.  Is it okay for them to meet one on one?  Is it okay for them to meet in a place where other people cannot see them?  What advice do you have?

SARAH LAMAR:  I think it is okay to meet one on one for either male boss/female subordinate or flipped.  But it needs to be just kept in the professional environment.  I think that’s probably best.  So in the conference room; in an office.  And treat everyone the same.  So if you’re going to meet with – a woman is going to meet with a female subordinate one on one, then I think it’s appropriate to meet with a male subordinate one on one.  If you’re counseling someone or disciplining them, I would always recommend two managers in the room, or at least a witness.  But if you’re just generally conducting business, I don’t think that you need to have a witness in the room with a member of the opposite sex.  I think that sends a really difficult and bad message.

BILL YATES:  I agree.  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  Sarah, I’ve got a question.  I’ve been wondering the whole time.  I’ve got my own theory on it.  But if you don’t mind sharing with our listeners, do you most commonly work on the plaintiff or the defendant side?

SARAH LAMAR:  I am the employer side.

ANDY CROWE:  Okay.

SARAH LAMAR:  The management side.

ANDY CROWE:  Right.

SARAH LAMAR:  So I’m seeing things – I see all sorts of different perspectives.  But I’m usually defending the employer or one of the managers who is sued in these types of cases.

NICK WALKER:  With that in mind, back to the word “subjectivity.”  What is harassment to one person may not be to somebody else.  We talked a little bit about that.  But is the law subjective, or is there a definite line that the law says you shall not cross?

SARAH LAMAR:  Excellent question.  There are two parts to an analysis of whether harassment, which is sometimes called “hostile work environment,” is severe and pervasive to rise to the level of harassment.  And there are two components.  One is the objective component, and one is the subjective component.  So to go back to the example I mentioned, I think, earlier, if a boss says “You look nice today” to a subordinate, I don’t think subjectively, or rather objectively, anyone would think that was rude and offensive.  Subjectively, you might have a very sensitive person who does believe that.  They might make a complaint, but it’s probably not going to go anywhere because objectively they can’t meet the standard.

The flipside of that scenario is, let’s say, a boss makes an extremely inappropriate comment about a subordinate, say what they were wearing or what they looked like, and that subordinate doesn’t care.  She has thick skin.  Doesn’t bother her a bit.  She’s never going to complain to anyone about it.  So she might not meet those two standards.  But her coworkers who have to listen to that type of comment which would be clearly inappropriate, they may have a claim, and they might complain.  So it’s two-sided.

ANDY CROWE:  Fascinating.  Sarah, I’ve got another question for you.  I’ve probably got a hundred questions.  I’m trying to curate these in my own mind.  How do you feel about the recent developments and sort of this idea of due process?  There’s a big discussion these days about due process which involves going through HR, going through perhaps a civil or even criminal action in some cases, courts and discovery and all of that, versus Twitter, which now bypasses that and gets it in the court of public opinion very quickly.  How do you feel about that tension?

SARAH LAMAR:  As an attorney, I am uncomfortable with the idea of trial by the court of public opinion because I believe in the rule of law and think there is a legal process there to handle the issues that come up in our society.  That said, I’m not sure the legal process did some of these victims proud with respect to some of the – who appear to be serial harassers like the Harvey Weinsteins out there.  And Harvey Weinstein is being sued.  He is being pursued criminally.  There are…

ANDY CROWE:  It took a long time for that to happen.

SARAH LAMAR:  It did.  And there are statute of limitations issues there.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, and there’s a lot of friction in the legal system, isn’t there.  I mean, there’s some resistance to making that happen, if you’re one of the people who’s a victim.

SARAH LAMAR:  I think one thing we haven’t chatted about yet is the fear of retaliation and why certain women did not come forward for so long, some decades, with respect to the complaints about Mr. Weinstein and others.  And one of the concerns is that they will be retaliated against, and their career will be compromised if they make waves, and they complain about powerful people.  And that’s one thing that I think companies and project managers specifically, for this podcast, can do to alleviate some of those concerns in the workplace is to consistently apply the policies that you have and hold people accountable when they violate those policies because then folks will know, if I complain, they’re going to take it seriously, and they’re going to do something about it.

BILL YATES:  Sarah, I have one other scenario.  I’ve been the scenario guy today, my apologies, but I’ve got another one that I can relate to.  I remember as a 20-something-year-old project manager we were onsite quite frequently at our customer’s, and our team was there.  And in some situations we would observe behaviors from either contractors or from our customer, where the eyebrows are raised.  And we’re like, oh, my gosh, I’m glad we don’t do that.  How do we react?  So what advice do you have, if it’s outside of my employer/employee relationship, but I’m working with contractors or working with a customer, and I see behavior that is just inappropriate?

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, dealing with customer inappropriate behavior is a great challenge because you are the vendor; right?  You don’t want to anger a customer unnecessarily.  So one approach, and this depends on your relationship with a customer, but if you see a customer do something, say, to another contractor, so not your chain of command, if you have a good relationship with that customer you might say, you know, “Hey, man, that probably isn’t the best thing to say to that person.  And, you know, the whole #MeToo, maybe you don’t want to do that.  Maybe you should cut back on that.”  If you don’t have that kind of relationship, it may be something that could be handled at a higher level.  Maybe you tell your boss, and your boss tells the customer’s boss.  That’s another scenario.

I had a client tell me years ago about a story, it was a hotel business, and a customer, a guest at a hotel, was riding down the elevator with a Hispanic bellman and the supervisor of the bellman in the same elevator.  The customer made some extremely inappropriate comments to the bellman about his Hispanic heritage and being an illegal alien and really very, very offensive.  The supervisor was paralyzed, did not know what to do in front of this guest, and was very embarrassed for his subordinate, but didn’t do anything.

And later it came up at a training session, “What should I have done?”  And I think the prevailing wisdom on that is the supervisor should have told the customer right then and there, you know, “Sir, we don’t appreciate that type of talk to our subordinates,” and then maybe put a little red mark next to that customer, that visitor’s name for the future, if they want to check in again to that hotel.  So sometimes you confront directly.  Sometimes you go around.  Other times you perhaps empower the person who was the subject of the comments to say something.

ANDY CROWE:  Sarah, let’s do one more hypothetical for fun here.  I’ve got a consulting company.  We’ve got 500 consultants traveling all over the country.  How should I, as the owner of this company, approach dating among employees?  Is that something we should turn a blind eye to and say, well, you have to figure it out?  Is that something we have a strict policy, no dating your coworkers?  Is that even legal?  Can you do that?  Can you prohibit your employees from engaging in romantic relationships?

SARAH LAMAR:  A private company can certainly have a policy that prohibits dating among peers or folks in the chain of command.  Is it something that you can enforce is another question.  So there are lots of “no dating” policies out there.  Some are extremely strict, saying no dating whatsoever.  Others focus more on the subordinate/supervisor relationship.  And those are the ones that I think make more sense and are frankly more practical, so policies that prohibit a supervisor or someone higher in the chain of command from dating a subordinate.  And if it is found out that they are dating, then they have to be separated.  And I’ve even seen and written policies…

ANDY CROWE:  Separated professionally.

SARAH LAMAR:  Professionally.  And I’ve even seen and helped draft policies that say, if you don’t separate yourselves, if there’s not another place you can be within the company, transfer, et cetera, so you’re not in the same chain of command, then the company will make that decision for you.  Which may end up having somebody lose their job.

ANDY CROWE:  And that is going to be upheld by the courts?

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, I can’t say that I’ve ever litigated that issue.  But the employer cannot – it’s a really bad idea to have a boss dating a subordinate.

ANDY CROWE:  I agree.  It gets tricky, though, if I’m friends with one of my employees on Facebook, and I see that they changed their relationship status with another employee, and we’ve got a policy against it.  Do I waltz in and say, “You’ve kept it really professional at work, but I don’t like this,” and I’m going to step in?  It gets…

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, I think if it’s a boss/subordinate, and the employer knows about it through social media or otherwise, it should be addressed because it’s great when everything’s great.  But then when they break up, then suddenly you hit that unwelcome item in what’s harassment.

ANDY CROWE:  Everyone here has seen that, too.

BILL YATES:  Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  Everyone here has experienced that.

SARAH LAMAR:  But you raise a fantastic point about social media and what bosses know about subordinates because being friends on social media.  I actually am somewhat old school and believe that supervisors should not be friends with their subordinates on social media.

ANDY CROWE:  I agree.

BILL YATES:  What is social media?  Some just stay away from it completely.

ANDY CROWE:  Well, but then you get into LinkedIn, and LinkedIn is supposed to be more professional.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, true.

ANDY CROWE:  And so I do accept LinkedIn requests from any employee.  But I typically don’t extend them, but I’ll accept them.  But I deleted my Facebook just to stay out of trouble.

SARAH LAMAR:  Well, another interesting area is the group text.  And I have found in the last couple of years that the group text is everywhere at the workplace.  And unfortunately, a lot of group texts don’t just stick with work.  It’s not, “Hey, let’s meet at the water cooler to have our safety meeting today,” it’s “What about politics?  What about the elections?”  Then it turns into joking.  Then it turns into inappropriate behavior.  And if the boss – it’s bad enough if the boss isn’t on the group text.  But if the boss is on the group text and is part of those discussions and is aware of that, that means the company knows and ought to do something about it.

BILL YATES:  Right.

ANDY CROWE:  That’s an interesting scenario.

BILL YATES:  That is.  Instant messaging and group texting, there are so many different ways that we communicate, all the collaboration tools that we have.  And it’s easy to get down to that level.  I mean, it’s just a couple of steps.  Somebody makes a comment, and suddenly you’re in an area that you’re, okay, wait a minute, time out, we’ve got to avoid this.  So that’s a great point you bring up.

SARAH LAMAR:  And more and more companies and departments are communicating by group text.  It’s quite extraordinary.

ANDY CROWE:  You know, Sarah, this has been a helpful conversation.  You used the word “paranoia” earlier.  And I can tell you from personal experience a lot of people are facing some degree of paranoia.  It’s because it’s been so heightened in the media.  It’s because there’s so much scrutiny and attention.  And there’s a really good side to that, that it’s focusing a much-needed spotlight on a real problem.  On the other side, it leaves a lot of people wondering because we can’t keep up with all the case law.  We don’t know all of the rulings and all of the current twists and turns from the courts.  And so it becomes a question of, okay, do I err on the side of safety?  But you know what, you can go too far, absolutely, on the side of safety to where now, like you said, it feels like there’s a boys’ club or even the inverse of that.  So this has been a helpful conversation.

BILL YATES:  It really has.

ANDY CROWE:  Thank you for helping us navigate this.

NICK WALKER:  And it’s very possible, Sarah, that there’s an employer listening that would like to take advantage of your services.  How can people…

ANDY CROWE:  Or may need to take advantage.

NICK WALKER:  And probably should, yeah.  How should people get in touch with you?

SARAH LAMAR:  Oh, well, I have an email that is slamar@huntermaclean.com, or they can look me up on our firm website.  And I’m happy to answer any questions from folks.

ANDY CROWE:  And we’ll put a link to that in the show notes.

NICK WALKER:  Great, great.  This has been a fascinating discussion.  We want to leave you with a gift.  We always like to make sure our guests go away with something tangible.  This is the Manage This coffee mug.  And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met an attorney who does not drink coffee.

SARAH LAMAR:  Yes, very true.  I haven’t, either.

NICK WALKER:  So enjoy that.

SARAH LAMAR:  Thank you so much.

NICK WALKER:  Thank you for being with us, Sarah.  We want to remind everyone that, in addition to bringing you knowledgeable and interesting guests, we also provide a way for you to grow in your professional development.  We’re offering free PDUs toward your recertifications, and they’re yours for the taking.  Visit Velociteach.com and select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and just click through the steps.

That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on July 3rd for our next podcast.  In the meantime, you can visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us.  And be sure and tweet us – that’s at @manage_this – if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications.  We are here for you.

That’s all for this episode.  Thanks for joining us.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

5 responses to “Episode 59 – Sexual Harassment and #MeToo: Advice to Project Managers”

  1. Glenda S Wylie says:

    Good podcast – just wish you would of covered the issue of Baby Boomers trying to work longer and companies have age limits in their hiring practices. Also, I would of like for you to cover age classes of people. Seems the Mills. seem to express it over the BB. Why can’t we just people that are age-less?

    • Bill Yates says:

      Thanks for that perspective, Glenda. We’ll look for opportunities to address that in future conversations.

  2. Daniel says:

    Very interesting.

  3. T.Pritchard says:

    Andy Crowe brought up an excellent point regarding the male bonding. I work in a work place where I am the only female leadership of a 6 member leadership team. From day one of my employment, none of the five male team members has ever asked me out to lunch. Every day they all go to lunch together. For the four years of employment I felt ostracized. My feelings were hurt over this (though I would never let them know). I mention this because as a female professional in the Information Technology field where it is predominantly male, it seems like women are now stereotyped. It just makes it harder for other women to be accepted because we can’t be apart of the ‘boys club’.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Thank you for your heartfelt comment. We have a podcast coming up in a few months where the cultural challenges in organizations will be our topic. (Our guest worked as a female professional in the IT field) Please stay tuned as we hope it will be an insightful discussion to our audience.

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