Steve Wyard thought he knew what sexual harassment looked like: a put-out-or-lose-your-job overture. Now he’s not so sure.
“Have we gotten to the point now where men can’t say, ‘That’s a nice dress’ or ‘Did you do something with your hair?’” says the veteran sales associate for a Los Angeles company. “The potential problem is you can’t even feel safe saying, ‘Good morning’ anymore.”
The sexual misconduct allegations that have brought down powerful men in Hollywood, media, politics and business are sending a shiver through the workplace. Men are wondering if it’s still OK to hug a female colleague or ask about her weekend. And some are asking themselves if they ever, perhaps even inadvertently, crossed the line.
If Garrison Keillor, the gentle-natured former host of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” can be fired for accidentally (he said) placing his hand on a woman’s bare back, could they get in trouble for something similar?
CEO Tom Turner of Bitsight Technologies, a cybersecurity company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that held a training session for its 270 employees on sexual harassment last month, worries about the effect the national furor will have on the workplace.
Turner says his business takes pride in being a place where people enjoy being around each other. The company’s website features photos of employees taking part in ski trips and parties.
“With what all is going on in the media, there could be a tendency to go so far that you actually lose what is special about your company,” he says.
Wyard, who is retiring at the end of the month after 35 years with a company that supplies industrial washers and dryers, says he can’t recall anyone bringing a sexual harassment complaint during his time there.
He chalks that up in part to the family atmosphere he says exists at a business that has employed many of the same people for decades, including fathers and daughters who work together. It’s fostered a culture among its 70 employees, he says, “where you just treat everybody the way you’d want them to treat your sister.”
But he says his wife, the CEO at a health maintenance organization, got a complaint from a woman just last month who believed a fellow employee was getting too personal. “It turned out the guy thought he was just saying, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’” Wyard recalls his wife telling him.
John Frith, who worked for years as a spokesman for California government agencies and a California congressman before becoming a consultant, says he was always careful to keep even an innocuous inquiry about someone’s weekend plans to himself — particularly if he was talking to a woman he supervised.
Looking back, he says, he believes his most egregious transgression was ordering a female intern to fetch him a cup of coffee. He says he wouldn’t do it now.
“She glared at me like I was just the worst person in the world,” he recalls. “I would like to apologize to her now, but after these many, many years I can’t remember her name.”
While some public figures such as Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein have been accused of rape, others like Keillor and former President George H.W. Bush are said to have put their hands where they didn’t belong.
It’s those cases that have everyday guys sweating as they wonder whether they might have leaned in a little too close for that hug. Or if they should have kept that oral sex joke to themselves, or just between them and their male friends.
“What I see in terms of my male friends now is an, ‘Oh, my gosh, I hope I didn’t.’ There’s a sense of shame,” says independent filmmaker Laura Lee Bahr.
She says she has been reassuring male friends that giving her a friendly hug when they greet her isn’t harassment. It’s the flat-out propositions and the unwanted grabbing of body parts that need to stop, she says.
“So for me, I wish it was the people who really need to take a look at themselves who would take a look at themselves,” she adds.
University of Southern California sociologist Carolann Peterson says men do need to recognize that a sudden arm around the shoulder or a pat on the butt isn’t the innocuous gesture some might have thought it was, and it can make women uncomfortable, even if they don’t say so at the time.
“Sometimes we as women have a tendency of playing what I call nice,” she says. “We don’t want to offend anybody so we don’t say anything.”
But those days are ending, Peterson adds, noting the recent allegations against so many high-profile men have emboldened students in her USC classes to discuss their own experiences.
“We need to speak up when we’re uncomfortable,” she says. “And we need men to be a little more sensitive in what they do.”