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What's wrong with a bit of innocent smut?

Patti Waldmeir

CHERYL GLASER: Companies differ on how much training they give you to do your job well. But more and more employers — including ours — provide training on sexual harassment. The feds don't require it. But some states do. And lawyers say a well-defined policy can help protect a company against lawsuits. Commentator Patti Waldmeir recently went through this kind of training. She says it only stirred up negative feelings.




PATTI WALDMEIR: How often do you sit down and think really hard about how much sex there is in your office? Speaking for myself, I haven't thought about it in years . . . at least, not recently, when I was forced to spend an hour with a group of my nearest and dearest colleagues talking about smut in the workplace.

The occasion for our naughty little chat was a mandatory course in sexual harassment training administered by two very nice young people from the Financial Times HR department.

Now, I have worked for the FT for close on 25 years, and I can't remember ever being trained to do anything before this.

But sexual harassment lawsuits being what they are, I wasn't really surprised to find myself cooped up with a bunch of my otherwise androgynous colleagues in a conference room, on a frigid winter day, to talk about how to slay the demon sex, on the job.

You have to get the picture: most of the people in the room were either married, middle-aged or menopausal, scarcely a bunch of lurking lotharios.

But the US Supreme Court doesn't make such distinctions: the justices have made it very very tempting for every company in the US to train every employee to avoid the slightest whiff of sex on the job — because if they do, it will help defend them against sexual harassment lawsuits.

But wait a minute — is there the slightest evidence that sex sensitivity training works? Many academics these days — even feminist ones — seem to think that's doubtful.

I can vouch for that: ever since the sex trainers left our office, my colleagues can think of nothing but harassment.

We all seem to go out of our way these days to say something that the sex trainers would frown at . . . some comment about a colleague's haircut — or his weight — or her new suit — the kind of innocuous innuendo that used to pass for healthy office banter — but now just might invite a lawsuit.

And that is exactly the problem: is humor really such a liability? Isn't it hard enough to work all day in an office building, without being able to make a joke about somebody's hairdo — or their paunch — or the red roses on their desk?

Okay, train us. But don't go overboard. Let us keep making our jokes. There are plenty of examples of real, ugly, obscene sexual harassment out there, even now. Don't confuse that with a bit of innocent smut. Let's not sacrifice workplace humor on the altar of sexual correctness.

GLASER: Patti Waldmeir is a columnist for the Financial Times.

She comes to us by special arrangement.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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