Second-guessing the advice columns: #MeToo edition

Don't these columnists read the papers?

(My other posts critiquing advice columns on employment law are available here, here, here, here, and here.)

The advice columnists had two big blunders this week on the topic of workplace sexual harassment.

The first was from a Chief HR Officer who writes a workplace advice column, so he really ought to know better. (And usually does.) I'm talking about Greg Giangrande of the @work column in the New York Post. In this Monday's column (link not yet available), a police officer wrote to him complaining about "raunchy" language and behavior at the precinct office. The language and behavior made the letter-writer uncomfortable. The writer said, "The captain laughs at me when I complain. He says this isn't an office and the rules are not the same."

Here is Greg's cringe-worthy response:

"Wow -- at the risk of not catching a break the next time I speed up at a yellow light (oh c'mon, like you've never done that?) let me say this: It is true that within reason, the standards of acceptable behavior can vary by the workplace. Think about a professional sport team's locker room where the language is as salty as the Dead Sea and people are walking around naked. If you tried that in your office, you'd be on the local news. If you are being targeted, however, that's a problem. Being abused or harassed is unacceptable in any environment. Everyone has a different sensibility and a right to it. Maybe you can transfer to a different station house. Maybe you're being unrealistic and need to adjust. Maybe the station house and behavior needs to change. You've got a union, so speak to your rep about the details and see what they have to say. And thank you for your service and keeping us safe."

OK, telling this cop to go to the Union isn't bad advice. It's everything leading up to that recommendation, including Greg's making light of the complaint. (And if the police captain's attitude is to laugh at complaints about a potentially hostile work environment, then how much help is the Union likely to be?)

I give this advice a D+. I was going to flunk Greg until he got to the last three sentences. He redeemed himself in the end -- barely.

The next instance of lousy workplace advice causes me great pain and anguish because it came from my very favorite advice columnist, Miss Manners. Her gentle reader had attended "a boozy company party" with his wife. Drunk Co-worker No. 1 threw up. The letter-writer's wife went to get a janitor, and Drunk Co-worker No. 2 accosted her and asked her to have sex with him. The husband overheard the proposition and did nothing, and then his wife got mad at him and said he should have punched out Drunk Co-worker No. 2. The husband asked Miss Manners for advice.

Ms. Manners, always correct, of course did not recommend punching anyone out. But she said that the wife could have

"delivered a smart slap when the indecent proposition was made . . .. That is the traditional response of ladies to cads."


Her serious suggestion was that the husband "steer" Drunk Co-worker No. 2 away from his wife and tell him that he could apologize to her when he felt better. That was it.

A couple of things are wrong with this answer.

First, if the wife had slapped the "cad," there could have been ramifications for the workplace. Most employers prohibit any workplace violence, including slaps, and make exceptions only for self-defense, if they make any exceptions at all. Defending one's honor after an inappropriate proposition could arguably be a form of "self-defense," I guess, but I don't think many employers would see it that way. So an actual physical slap could have created some serious problems for her husband's job.

But the real mistake, of course, was failing to recommend that the husband report Drunk Co-worker No. 2 to Human Resources. Being drunk at a company party is not a defense to sexual harassment, and the fact that the wife was not an employee is also not a defense. Maybe the drunkenness can be considered a mitigating factor -- resulting in discipline rather than termination of employment -- but it should be reported so that the company can deal with it.

(And what if this wasn't the first time for Drunk Co-worker No. 2? If nobody reports his bad behavior, we'll never know.)

P.S. If the company serves so much booze at its "boozy parties" that one employee throws up and another hits on a co-worker's spouse, then I'd say it's time for this company to switch to lunches where cucumber sandwiches and tea are served. Miss Manners would approve.

Image Credit: From flickr, Creative Commons license, by Ray MacLean.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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