Indecent Proposal

Sex sells.

Periodically we conduct awareness sessions, train and otherwise try to spread the word about appropriate behavior in the workplace. Sometimes, much like our friend George, people “claim ignorance” so pre-emptive advice with do’s and don’ts seems prudent.

HR loves prudent.

In the larger environment some argue this is overkill. When it comes to sexual discussion in the office people want to avoid it, dismiss it or otherwise push it away.

We do that a lot. Push away things we’re uncomfortable with.

What it is

My friends of the bar (not “at” the bar) will quickly remind us harassment is a legal definition and we shouldn’t throw the term around without caution. I agree, and have not applied the word to a work situation in many years.

I’m interested in behavior though, not labels.

Inappropriate behavior is bullying. Its power. Its a crude attempt at domination, subjugation and control. It is painful, bad, and wrong. That’s right, I said it: its wrong.

Inappropriate behavior – language, jokes, email, space encroachment, pictures, et al, – has nothing to do with “attraction”. Whether inter-gender or same sex, inappropriate behavior is about making the other person feel “less than” or smaller. Its a way of putting others down.

Its not a mistake, its not simply inappropriate. Its wrong.

The truth

The popular misconception is that “harassment” is simply people attempting to enjoy sex with each other as a means of fulfilling attraction and that it is somehow painted differently in retrospect. A view that holds there is an underlying thread of flirtation or cooperation and hence, the victim is then responsible.


Inappropriate is rarely direct. Its the “slip of the tongue,” a harmless “joke” and lots and lots (and lots) of unwelcome double entendre and innuendo. Seldom does one person say to another in the textbook definition of quid pro quo, if you do this, I’ll do that.

And yet, all of these mistakes, missives and moments are inappropriate. And wrong.

Long ago courts interpreted the question of harassment on the basis of impact vs intent. Most HR people know this.

But some of our workmates don’t.

The deal

So here’s the deal: if you at some point have a mutual (mutual is key) desire to see someone you work with follow your firm’s policy. Many proscribe limits on public displays of attention, whether relationships should be reported and so on. Follow your guidance.

If however there is no mutuality and you persist, then you are simply a human predator intent on asserting power. And your job is not safe. You cannot claim ignorance, and you will not get a second chance.

Work is for working. We demand good tools, a reasonable physical environment and the respect of our co-workers. Should you fail to display that respect abject claims of ignorance will not help.

You will be gone by the end of the day.

To do otherwise would be indecent.


9 thoughts on “Indecent Proposal

  1. I can still remember a bazillion years ago when I was a new consultant. I was meeting with a client and he was telling me about his house and said more than once that he and his wife watch a lot of TV in the bedroom because there is nothing else going on in there. I got very uncomfortable and left. I casually said something to one of our Partners and as much as I was willing to brush it off because I was new and didn’t want to be a complainer, it was taken very, very seriously. Never ever are even veiled comments appropriate at work.

    Important post, Christopher!

  2. Agree… This isn’t a question in my mind – things are clearer than people sometimes pretend. Thank you for your thoughts, and thank you for commenting Alli. You remain a shining light to me.

  3. Thanks, Christopher, for taking this issue head on and delivering the body blow it requires. Cavalier attitudes about sexually laced overtures in the workplace create the license that perpetuates them.

    I had a very ineffectual boss once who, after I made a presentation to his managers, suggested that they inquire about my availability for a date that weekend. They were all married men. I was relatively new to the organization, been used to the utmost respect by peers and senior leadership, and consequently startled by his ignorance. The managers in the room were just as stunned but said nothing. This was years before companies were committed to addressing harassment.

    I did nothing overt but did document the event for my own files in case things escalated. I also shared the story with my mentors in leadership who were already dissatisfied with this man.I wasn’t the only woman he thought he was being “funny” with and in the end, he was iced, as they say.

    Why, because as you state succinctly, it was wrong. The fact that we still contend with these issues is sad and I dare say the endless barrage of sexual imagery and language we see in the media at every turn isn’t helping.

    Kudos to those companies who keep the pressure and to you who lend your powerful voice to the issue. Thanks. ~Dawn

  4. Agree entirely Dawn. There is no such thing as “a little” inappropriate. Thank you for your impassioned thoughts and leadership my friend!

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