The Question I’m Glad I Didn’t Get In My Sexual Harassment Seminar…

A question to the New York Times’ “Work Friend” column this month raised an issue I’ve considered but never written about regarding sexual relations in the workplace. The columnist botched it badly, but I’m pretty sure my answer would be extremely unpopular. Well, so be it.

The question came from a female employee about to attend a conference at a “fancy hotel with a swanky pool,” She wanted to know if she should pack her bikini, or if wearing a skimpy/revealing/sexually provocative bathing suit around her boss, co-worker  and industry colleagues was inappropriate.

It’s inappropriate.

The problem at the root of sexual harassment and sexual workplace misconduct is the sexualization  of the workplace, or, as I often put it, “the workplace is not a dating bar.” Having conferences and conventions at resorts and locales famous for ‘fun in the sun’ is an understandable and pragmatic business practice, but in the immortal words of George Costanza, it means that “Worlds are colliding!” Such events are officially business, and indeed a great deal of business gets done at them. For staff, however, the temptation to metaphorically let one’s hair down (this has never been an option for me) is great, and for many, it’s irresistible. This is especially so for single staffers with aspirations of romantic liaisons and even marriage with the rich and powerful.

Th e business advice columnist, a woman, who answered the query said that any boss who objected to the inquirer wearing a bikini poolside would be “gross and sexist,” then admitted that she personally wouldn’t wear revealing swimwear because she couldn’t deal with the reactions of the “guy in the next cubicle” because she was a “coward.” Got it: a male supervisor who recognizes the problem is gross and sexist, but when she behaves reasonably according to the obvious implications of the situation, its okay, just a failure of nerve.

I’d fire that columnist for rank hypocrisy and doing disingenuous mental gymnastics because the correct answer violates her feminist cant and she doesn’t have the integrity to be honest.

Is it appropriate to wear a bikini, a thong, pasties, a Speedo, or go topless while doing business in the office? Of course not. Do the rules of engagement change because the workplace has been moved to another locale? Why would it? The issue is  interpersonal relationships, conflicting roles and individual behavior that sends mixed signals leading to confusion and misconduct. Think of the surroundings as a movie effects green screen. What eventually shows on the screen can represent anything and anywhere,  but its effect on what goes on between the two, three or ten alleged professionals working together should be negligible. The workplace is still not a dating bar—not in Newark, not in Kauai.  Sorry.

Just as “working evening dinners” are a recognized trap for workplace sexual predators, these “fun” conferences, conventions and meetings are the sexual predator’s playground and the naive employee’s trap. Neither a woman nor a man should allow his or her workplace image to be sexualized, or to lose the professional aura that is essential to keeping boundaries clear.

My rules for male and female staffers under my supervision at such events—some of which I was in charge of organizing and managing—were very strict (and unpopular). Appropriate business attire was mandatory at all times in all places around the meeting site, day or night. Meetings at poolside had to be handled in casual, tasteful attire, and not in bathing wear.  For female staffers,  evening wear at dinner meetings had to be modest and professional; men were to wear jackets. Drinking to the point of intoxication was grounds for discipline; so was workplace flirting with executives, board members or others on staff. Sexually provocative comments or conduct with executives, association members or staff was taboo, and I expected to be alerted if such came from executives, association members or staff. Then they, in turn, heard from me. The message: my staff is here to work, not as eye candy, date bait or targets of your amorous aspirations.

You might conclude from this that I think holding events where temptations run amuck is a bad idea. No, there are many benefits to these meetings; indeed, in one of my association jobs, I felt that more productive work was done during the week of a convention than the rest of the year, and that the attractive locales made the meetings more productive by attracting more attendees. That, however, just recognizes the utilitarian balance. Despite the positive factors, the danger of creating confusion over professional roles and appropriate workplace conduct remains.

The right answer that the advice columnist should have given was this: If you don’t want co-workers and others to start thinking of you as a sexually attractive woman in a bikini who is intentionally advertising that fact (or, in a horrible alternative, a deluded, tasteless  exhibitionist in a bikini who has no business wearing it in public)—and you shouldn’t want that, because your job, always, is to be professional in all respects—then don’t wear it at a business event, anywhere.

The same, of course, applies to men who want to show off their abs, their “package,” or anything else that wouldn’t be appropriate to parade back at the office.

35 thoughts on “The Question I’m Glad I Didn’t Get In My Sexual Harassment Seminar…

  1. This is why Mike Pence is, again, right. No dinners or meetings one on one with a person of the opposite sex. Witnesses and a clear agenda without lingering or flirtacious talk is paramount.

    When my son started his engineering career after his Navy SF stint, I told him to stay the hell away from the old boys who were traveling with him 3,000 miles from home and off the leash. They would almost certainly lead him to bad decisions. Fortunately, he listened and avoided some real problems.

    I recall once being told by a younger attractive colleague, while alone in an elevator, how she admired how put together I always seemed to be. I pushed the button for the next floor, got out, and walked the rest of the way. Didn’t know where she was going with her comment, but had no intention of finding out.

    Sexualizing the work environment cannot end well. Period.

      • It seems that we’re fast approaching a world where the only safe thing to do is to work alone in a mineshaft deep in the wilderness. The internet connection isn’t great, but your personnel file will remain spotless.

      • You mean discrimination based on sex, yes? Not refusing to interact. Refusing to interact under specifically risk laden circumstances.

        • The Mike Pence solution is not workable in the real world and it is discrimination. I have female clients and, like my male clients, we have lunch together, we walk places together, we ride in the car together, as circumstances require. Those are things you have to do sometimes. Further, if you do them for the males and not females, it is discrimination. I have never had a problem. If having a meal together is a “specifically risk laden circumstance,” I suggest both parties grow up. It takes two to tango – anyone with the slightest bit of social acumen can firmly but tactfully shut down an unwanted advance.

          • Some of the concern in recent years has shifted from “unwanted advances” to “there were no advances at all, but ten years later someone with an axe to grind claims there was misbehavior”. It takes more than just a bit of social acumen to deal with a situation like that.

            I agree that the Pence rule isn’t terribly realistic or workable for most people, but a false accusation isn’t a “it takes two to tango” scenario, it’s an “it only takes one to stomp on your foot and break your toes” scenario, and it’s this sort of thing that people have in mind when they talk about not taking one-on-one meetings with the opposite sex.

            • I don’t buy into the scenario where a man and woman are having a professional dinner and the woman completely fabricates a sexual encounter. Theoretically possible? Yes. Likely? I don’t think so.

              And if she’s willing to completely fabricate an encounter of some kind, wouldn’t she be willing to fabricate the fact that the two of you were together even if you weren’t?

              In other words, I don’t find this likely:

              Woman: I’m going to completely fabricate a story about you and I at dinner even though you did nothing wrong and it was completely professional.

              Man: but we weren’t even at dinner together!!

              Woman: Argh! Plan foiled!!

              • Yet the man may very well have proof that they did NOT have dinner together. Making things up out of whole cloth is more vulnerable today than ever before to being disproved, given the thousands of ways our lives are tracked.

                I have seen this sort of thing happen where the woman made accusations to climb over the body of the man for her gain. It happens, and more than you think.

                Having a witness is much safer all around, especially if you are Republican or conservative.

                • Bingo!

                  Most of the discounting of the risks mentioned above assume dealing with mostly rational people.

                  Pence is wise enough to realize he was and is always vulnerable to the irrational.

              • And yet, not a year ago, we witnessed the national spectacle of a woman apparently making up just such a claim about a man she very likely had never even met in an effort to torpedo his career, and being taken seriously. Obviously, most people aren’t in situations where the stakes are as high as a Supreme Court nomination, but in a world where people literally kill each other over paltry sums of money or perceived insults, do you really think it’s impossible that someone might take out a personal grudge by falsely accusing someone of sexual misconduct?

    • This is why Mike Pence is, again, right. No dinners or meetings one on one with a person of the opposite sex. Witnesses and a clear agenda without lingering or flirtacious talk is paramount.

      I think this is right. It is especially good advice for those in positions of power or aspiring to positions of power. It is also an excellent legal defense strategy against unethical women who are willing to use the legal system to do you harm.

      As we discovered during the Kavanaugh hearings and elsewhere, such women are disturbingly common.

  2. The picture at the top reminded me of that decades old picture of a…um…full-figured Egyptian (?) King/President/Potentate traipsing around in a speedo. How he got shoe-horned into it (truly a nonpareil engineering feat) is anyone’s guess.

    I tried googling “Fat Egyptian King/President in Speedo” to enhance my comment.

    BIG mistake.

  3. “The question came from a female employee about to attend a conference at a “fancy hotel with a swanky pool,” She wanted to know if she should pack her bikini, or if wearing a skimpy/revealing/sexually provocative bathing suit around her boss, co-worker and industry colleagues was inappropriate.

    It’s inappropriate.”

    I agree 100% but I’d personally add this…

    Stay the hell away from the pool, it’s NOT a work environment! Be 100% professional from the time you leave home until you return to home, it’s work NOT a vacation.

    • Indeed. Business pool parties should be treated just like any other business cocktail party — I’ve never seen someone wearing a bikini at one of those.

      • I sure have. It was a tall, hard-bodied 30-year-old manager who was looking for stares, compliments and leers, and got them. In Maui, with Tiki torches and warm breezes, and an average male age of about 55. Her game, there and everywhere, was to use everything in her arsenal to wrap men around her little finger.

        We did not get along.

        • Wow. That’s not exactly good for workplace morale.

          I was once at a party where a couple of employees fought over the chance to take another employee home. But her dress was appropriate!

          A pretty woman doesn’t need a bikini to wrap men around her finger, in my experience.

  4. Meanwhile, the WSJ reports that modesty is now being redefined as “body shaming” (Behind-the-paywall link from twitter.com/wsj: https://t.co/wPr6JNoOA3) A few excerpts:
    .
    Schools Relax Dress Codes in Bid to End Body Shaming

    The old fingertip test to measure length of shorts and skirts is out in a growing number of school districts, while short shorts, tube tops, pajamas and attire showing cleavage are in.

    Clothing once considered taboo is now permitted as more districts across the U.S. relax student dress code policies, deemed disproportionately targeted at females, and move to gender-neutral or equitable dress codes. The districts also want to end body shaming, causing humiliation by criticizing a person’s body shape or size.

    “A decision of how a student comes to school, that is a decision with the family,” said Tracy Spinner, director of comprehensive health in the Austin Independent School District in Texas, which is moving to a less restrictive dress code this coming school year. “Clothing is just made differently than it was 10 years ago. Trying to find shorts for girls that come down to their knees, it’s impossible.”

    Austin ISD’s new policy, prompted by high-school students who felt the old policy discriminated against females and students not identifying with a gender, allows students to wear halter tops, leggings, ripped jeans, hats and hoodies with the hood up, as long as the face and ears are visible. Waistbands and straps on undergarments can show, but no midriffs or private parts…

    …Elleanor Chin, a member of Oregon NOW and co-writer of the policy, said the idea to create a policy came after hearing young girls in Portland, Ore., speak out on disproportionate dress-code rules.

    “Assumptions are that the girl’s body is a problem, that these girls, who are just barely in puberty, are capable of sending a sexual message,” Ms. Chin said. “Our goal was to take the onus off of the body.”
    …The Alameda Unified School District in California stripped many rules from its dress code, mostly leaving it up to students and parents to decide as long as students wear a top, bottom and shoes, and private parts don’t show. Midriff-baring clothes are allowed. The district, which piloted its new dress code last school year and made it permanent for this coming school year, also addressed cleavage, allowing it as long as no areolae or nipples show.

    “Some girls develop faster, some have bigger bodies,” said Susan Davis, the Alameda schools spokeswoman. “Some people who were upset said it would teach girls not to respect their bodies. Our boys need to learn that just because a girl’s body is showing does not mean she’s open for sex.”

    • Showing off cleavage doesn’t mean “I’m open for sex.” It means “I want to show off my cleavage.” Boys and girls know this.

      I guess we’re supposed to believe that modesty means the rapists win, and the only cure is for everyone to wear a whore’s uniform. Nice false dilemma there, feminism.

      The real problem now is that (undesirable) boys will have to practically look up at the ceiling just to avoid accusations of ogling girls in their “empowering” garb (remember, that’s asssault too.) I personally wouldn’t even go to a pool if a coworker was there in a thong. Better to avoid the risk of being perceived as there to look.

  5. The only attire appropriate to wear at a swimming pool is swimwear, wearing business attire would make any other hotel guests feel uncomfortable so no meetings at all beside the pool.

  6. Where were all of these swanky locations when I used to attend conferences? The most popular hot spots were where the WiFi was strong… and free.

    #geektechnicalconferences

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