A male colleague recently confided that he was feeling nervous about work. It wasn't a looming deadline on his mind, but rather something even bigger and more important. In the post #MeToo era, what was upsetting him was that he could, without intending to, do or say something wrong in the workplace—and his life would never be the same because of it.
There's a new dynamic in the workplace, and it's freaking the "good" guys out.
They live in fear of doing something inappropriate or saying the wrong thing. Is it okay to compliment that colleague on her new haircut? Should he have opted for a handshake instead of a hug? Rather than being the sexual predators we read about in the press, these are the well-meaning men who don't intend to offend, disrespect, or diminish. They know they may have been accidentally inappropriate in the past, and they don't want to do it again. So how does a "good" guy avoid doing or saying something really stupid? And if you do screw up, how do you keep it from ruining your life and career?
First, I reassured my friend that this was something he could navigate. He's not wrong about how important it is; the stakes have never been higher around gender relations, and we all need to get what comes next right. As an HR professional, I am keenly aware of how critical and necessary it is for us to change how we engage in the workplace. Men have a vital role to play in that—we cannot do it without them—and need to step past trepidation to a place of aware and conscious support.
So, for the good ones out there, a few tips:
Keep your language neutral: If you wouldn't tell your male colleague, "Wow, you look cute today," then you certainly shouldn't say it to a woman. You may mean it as a compliment, but it's a statement loaded with meaning far beyond the words themselves. Don't objectify a female colleague by speaking to her in a way that you'd never dream to with a male one. And ditch those "honey" and "sweetie" comments, as well (yes, even if you are from the South). We don't like to be talked to that way; it makes us feel diminished.
Be tactful and accurate: A well-meaning colleague of mine invited his subordinate to contribute to a pitch recently. When she asked why she was picked, he told her the truth: They had wanted a woman for the project group. Yes, it was true—but only partly. The fact that she was experienced, articulate, and competent was why she was the one picked, and that should have been his response. Sure, what he said was honest, but it laid bare a decision point that should never have been used in the first place.
Be an advocate: If you work with someone great, be her champion, and help her get the recognition she deserves. This shows up in ways large and small. You can recommend her for that big project or promotion, or you can simply amplify her point in a meeting by saying, "Jessica just had a great suggestion. Jess, will you expand upon that, please?"
If you aren't sure, ask: And, if you have to ask, it's probably not okay. So just save that hug for your spouse or partner, or a good friend outside of work. Be cordial—we're not robots here—but keep it professional.
And if you screw up, deal with it: If you cross the line, own it, and apologize. Consult with HR, take the appropriate steps to make amends, and make sure it never happens again. If it truly was accidental, and it's not egregious, you can recover, but only if you take responsibility for the behavior and what comes after.
We are experiencing a paradigm shift in the way that we, as a culture, engage around gender and equality. We will emerge stronger and more aligned, ready to face the future together.
Laura Small is VP / People Director at the ad agency RPA.