The #MeToo movement is now several months old and new reports of celebrities and politicians abusing their power continue to come out each week.
But workplace relationships are common and both workers and employers are asking good questions about how to manage that complex reality, especially when the people involved have different levels of authority.
There are bosses and subordinates — how do we manage the exchanges between them? Are all workplace relationships simply out of bounds? How do you know when something spills over into harassment when it seems rather innocuous at first?
MPR News host Kerri Miller hosted a live conversation about strategies to navigate relationships and harassment in the workplace. Her guests were Karla Altmayer, a lawyer and co-founder of Healing to Action, a Chicago-based organization committed to ending gender violence; and Chai Feldblum, a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which put out a comprehensive report on workplace harassment in the summer of 2016.
Here are nine takeaways from their conversation:
1. Is it OK to ask a coworker on a date?
"It's not that you can't meet people at work that you might then date. Women know when they want to go out on a date with someone that they've met at work -- and they know when they don't. This is actually not a hard thing for women to know. ... If you believe, as a man, that a good dating strategy is to ask someone for a date five times because, who knows, she may be playing hard to get, fine, you can continue to have that dating strategy outside of work. But inside work, when that woman has to come back every day and hear you ask her out for a date for the sixth time? No. That's not OK. ... We're not talking about not having people meet their partners at work. We're talking about making it feel OK for women and men to come to work and certainly not to have to experience some of the blatant, horrible stuff." — Feldblum
2. How do we know what's OK and what's not at work?
"There's a continuum of behavior here. But if you focus on respect in the workplace — just focus on that. That will cover the continuum." — Feldblum
3. What if I'm a bystander or witness to something that seems inappropriate in the workplace?
"There's an obligation on supervisors to take action if they see or hear of unwelcome conduct. That's an obligation. [But for] witnesses, bystanders — there's no legal obligation. There should be, I hope, an internal motivation to want to do something. But that will happen only if they're supported by the leadership." — Feldblum
4. Where's the legal line on what's unacceptable at work?
• "If you're actually in a court of law, you have to, number one, show that it's persistent ... enough to create a hostile work environment. And then [number two], someone looking at it from the outside would have to say, 'A reasonable woman would have also considered this unwelcome.' ... I don't know that the law helps people as much as it should." — Feldblum
• "I think we should not be trying to draw a line. The reality is that there is an assumption that women are available for sex. This is even reflected in the law where you have to prove that this is unwanted. And that really puts the onus on a woman or a person experiencing the harassment to show that this was unwanted. — Altmayer
6. Is training worth it for companies?
"We did find that a lot of [workplace] training has not been effective. Now, some people took that as proposition that training doesn't work. The research also shows that workplaces that don't have explicit policies against harassment and don't have trainings have more harassment. But, if employers are doing training just to check the box to say we did it for purposes of legal liability down the line, it will not have the impact that the employer wants. Training has to be one component of a comprehensive anti-harassment effort that includes leadership and policies and good complaint procedures and no retaliation. You have all of that, then you add training on top of that that explains what to do. Then training can work." — Feldblum
7. What is effective workplace training and how can I implement it at my company?
• "[The EEOC has come up with] 'respectful workplaces training', which is a much more skills-based training. And it's not even specifically on sex, race, etc. ... it teaches people the skills for how to give feedback when they experience unwelcome conduct. And it teaches other people the skills of how to respond when they get that feedback. It teaches managers the skills of how to engage in that situation. Let's give skills-based training, not legal term training. And let's create a culture - and of course employers are responsible for culture. They help create the culture as leaders." — Feldblum
• "A lot of employers have rules that a superior cannot ask someone below him or her for a date and although that's not legally required, I actually see that as a very prudential thing to do." — Feldblum
• "Part of what we [at the EEOC] are trying to do is to get employers to train supervisors to...say thank you when someone comes forward with a complaint...that's the incentive we need to create for supervisors." — Feldblum
• "We have a lot of really great laws addressing different forms of gender-based violence. And yet that's not stopping the violence. And I think for employers, what they tend to do is they tend to look at the law and say, 'What is the bare minimum I need to do in order to meet the requirements of the law?' without really thinking about their role -- which is they're bringing in people from all walks of life to share a common space and to also depend on each other. And everyone is coming in with a different idea of what it means to respect somebody." — Altmayer
• "Don't focus on trying to tell people what the law is. Just focus on saying what is not accepted in terms of unwelcome conduct." — Feldblum
• "Every workplace has to have a way of reporting that gives more than just one route. That is really essential." — Feldblum
• I actually think that you should talk with your employees to find out what this policy should entail." — Altmayer
8. Can the EEOC help me with a case of harassment at my work?
"We get a lot of questions and then we can help guide the person as to whether there is a legal complaint here." — Feldblum
"The way the law is set up, we as commissioners, the five commissioners, can bring a charge ourselves if there's evidence that something bad is going on and the people themselves don't want their names used or be involved. So I want people to know that they can come to the EEOC, give the information and say, 'There's a lot of this going on.'" — Feldblum
9. What do you do if you're punished for reporting harassment?
"Retaliation is itself a second legal offense. And I will tell you that when we bring cases, we often win them on retaliation...But let's be clear, law is not the best answer here. I mean, I want a culture...but until we get to that world, I think it's important for people to know that, if you come to the EEOC, with a complaint of harassment and then the next week you're retaliated against, come back again. Because that is a second legal claim." — Feldblum
Use the audio player above to hear the full discussion