The Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) – Where We Draw The Lines

Daily we read about yet another person who has been accused of sexual misconduct.  And yet, except in the more obvious cases, people are unsure of where offensive or inappropriate behavior ends and serious sexual misconduct begins.  This is the case even though the problems now surfacing have been around for a very long time.  The primary shock is how many women are coming forward and the secondary one is how many men in high places have been abusing their power when it comes to women.

Both women and men need to define more clearly the types of behavior that are offensive and beyond. We need dialogues within organizations, government, across the table and across the board.  We need them now.  It is not solely the job of women to get these tough conversations underway.  And we shouldn’t fear that there will be too much of a gray area – that we’ll never pin down the line over which men must not step.  The gray area is where we need to do the hardest work. A definitive line will not arise, but we’ll know bad behavior when we see or hear of it.

Based on my years of working on ranges of political behavior from minimal to pathological, I’m introducing the spectrum below so that conversations can begin.  As you’ll read, it is not cast in stone.  Far from it.  It is a  work in progress.

So, let’s get underway.  Let me know your thoughts on the categories, examples you’d like to add and where they belong.

Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) –  Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Ph.D.

This is a work-in-progress – as such human behavior spectra usually are.  Decisions about which category a behavior falls into depend on the situation and on nonverbal behaviors.  This is not a set of cut-and-dried categories.  Rather the SSMW offers individuals and organizations a first-pass blueprint for constructive dialogue – a way to start talking about what is and isn’t sexual misconduct. 

Persuasion research clearly indicates involvement by people in determining guidelines tends to facilitate adherence.  So, get involved.  

There’s a lot of room for humor and, no doubt, people will want to play with the categories (e.g., “Was that a welcome hug?”  “Is this leering?”).  But, that’s to be expected.  It could even be functional, so long as when all is said and done, people know and are serious about the guidelines they’ve decided to adopt in their organizations. Then it’s time to put them into practice, revisiting and revising as needed.

It’s useful to note that even lower level offenses repeated over time can become part of dysfunctional patterns toward women (DCPs) and foster inhospitable workplace cultures, as described in They Don’t Get It, Do They? – also in my Harvard Business Review case that when viral in 1993, “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk.”

Once the SSMW has been adapted and adopted in an organization or division, the question of responses to infringements arises.  As I mentioned in, “Did You Really Say That?” there needs to be a range of ways to respond to sexual offense and misconduct – including repertoires of comebacks for women to nip problems in the bud.  We can’t go around simply firing or expecting resignations from people who make mistakes.  As Aristotle described, people who cause injury to others are not all wicked.  It would be wrong and damaging to female-male relationships at work to treat all offenses as if they are the same.

One last thought.  Yes, there should be a set of guidelines for use by women to avoid offending men and engaging in sexual misconduct.  Communication is not a one-way street.  We start here with behavior toward women by men. Let’s see how we do with it.  I’ll look forward to your feedback, including other examples for the various categories as the SSMW moves closer to a final – yet still flexible – draft.





Common off-the-cuff compliments on such things as hair style and dress. (“You look nice today;” “I like your haircut,” “That’s a nice outfit;” “That’s a good color on you.”

Awkward/Mildly Offensive:

Comments on gender differences such as: “You would say that as a woman,” “I suppose it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind;” “We can’t speak frankly around you women anymore.”


Touching while talking

Uninvited hugs

Patronizing toward women

Dismissiveness or repeated interrupting


Seriously Offensive

Looking a woman up and down in a sexually suggestive manner

Denigrating comments about women in general

Jokes about a woman’s limited intellect or skills due to her gender

Words like “ice queen” or “female mafia” when referring to women


Sexual Misconduct

Grabbing, rude patting and unwelcome holding

Unwelcome, unexpected kissing

Making or telling crude jokes that demean women

Describing women with such terms as “slut” or “frigid”


 Sexually Egregious

 Exposing genitals

Pressing against a woman suggestively

Threatening career damage to a woman who refuses to engage in sex or sexual behavior

Forcing or coercing a woman to have sex











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“Did You Really Say That?” A Repertoire of Responses Women Need Now

In COMEBACKS AT WORK, I’ve written about situations that include gender-based offenses and insults.  These, of course, range from accidental misspeaking to obvious sexual harassment.  As the movement to fight back against sexual harassment continues, it would be wrong to think that those offended have only two choices — to say nothing or to make sure offenders lose their jobs.  Under such circumstances, we surely would begin to see men staying away from women and following what has come to be known as the Pence rule — men never being alone with women other than their wives.

Instead, we need to treat gender-based offenses, especially of a sexual  nature, with the same skill needed to respond to insults in general.  We need to determine what comments and actions are uncomfortable, mildly inappropriate, moderately inappropriate, clearly inappropriate, and downright insulting.  As I describe in THE SECRET HANDSHAKE, there is a difference between offense and insult.  The former is usually accidental and the latter on purpose.  As such, they require different types of responses.

On the topic of ethics, Aristotle differentiated types of offense —  misadventures, mistakes and injury.

“When the injury occurs contrary to reasonable expectation, it is a misadventure; but when it occurs not contrary to reasonable expectation but without malicious intent it is a mistake (for the agent makes a mistake when the origin of the responsibility lies in himself; when it lies outside him his act is a misadventure).”

The term “misadventure” is not used often now days.  Instead, we might look at levels of injury ranging from mistake to clearly insulting.

It’s interesting to point out that Aristotle also differentiated between people who deserve severe rebuke and those who may only need to be given a wake-up call.

“For those who commit these injuries and mistakes are doing wrong, and their acts are injuries; but this does not of itself make them unjust or wicked men, because the harm they did was not due to malice; it is when a man does a wrong on purpose that he is unjust and wicked.”

Now, those were different times.  There was no international outcry by women with regard to derogatory remarks and disdainful treatment — to say nothing of worse.  But, there is something to take away here.  We need to learn how to respond to levels of offense and insult.  It’s important to know who is “wicked” and who is not as funny as he or she thinks or socially inept.  There is a range.

In COMEBACKS, I referred to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s managing of her boss Senator Edmund Muskie.  She was hired by him in 1958 as a young woman.  After her promotion to chief legislative assistant in 1976 — a big step up for women, Muskie celebrated her appointment at a staff meeting by saying, “At last we’ll have some sex in this office.”*

Those were different times.  But, even then the comment was far from what Madeline Albright deserved given her achievement.  It was meant to be funny, though it was crass.

Albright knew the good and not so good sides of Muskie, so she stayed.  One of her friends described Albright’s ability to differentiate between situations requiring quick, public rebukes and those requiring another approach as “superior social intelligence.”  She knew how to be furious beneath a surface of warmth and charm in order to avoid derailing important goals.

So what do we do today?  After all, men and women work together.  How we deal with challenging situations, as with all comebacks, depends how good we are on our feet. Sometimes silence is all you need, perhaps combined with a discerning look.

When I speak to groups, there are always people who are unable to deliver direct comebacks.  “That’s enough of that,” is too direct for them, especially with someone of higher status.  Others are down the throat of the offender instantaneously.  To them, every offense is an insult.  Both approaches are usually ineffective.  We all need to learn ways to deal with offense and insult.

Step one is to take a look at your style.  If you demure too often even to accidental offense, you’re likely to find yourself dealing with it on a regular basis.  So, it’s wise to learn what you can bring yourself to say in a variety of instances — and how you can say it.

In COMEBACKS, lists of responses are provided for a variety of situations — including gender-based offenses.  Take the ones below, for example.  These are verbal.  There are also nonverbal comebacks and nonverbal ones that accompany the verbal.  But looking at the list below is a start.

Can you see yourself using them?  Your answer will tell you a lot about your preferred style and ability to stretch beyond it.  We’ll start with less direct ones:

“I’m taking a moment to be sure I heard you right.”

“This seems like a good time to take a break — to reflect on what was just said.”

“If I look perplexed, it’s because I’m thinking about giving you the benefit of the doubt.”

“I suggest we step back for a moment, as something just went awry.”

“Of all the things I thought you might say, that certainly wasn’t one of them.”

“If I said what I’m thinking, we’d both be out of line.”

“For two people who respect each other, we’re certainly off course today.”

“Do you want to run that by me again in a less personal way?”

“Did you really say that?”

“Now, I wonder.  Should I take that as an insult?”

“I usually respond defensively to comments like that, so give me a moment.”

“If I didn’t know you, I’d think you were insulting me.”

“I have a rule about comments like that one — I don’t respond.”

“I see you’re pulling out all the stops here — using your best stuff.”

“Were you making a point or simply trying to amuse yourself at my expense?”

“If you think that was funny, you need a new gig.”

“You’re amusing sometimes, but not today.”

“You once told me I could tell you to f__ off.  Consider yourself told.”

The situation or context and your history with the person causing offense or insulting you should enter into decisions about the type of comeback to use.  Sometimes it’s best to handle the situation in private — especially if it’s the first occurrence.  In any case, women need to develop repertoires of responses to comments that are insults to their person and their gender.  Without such repertoires, mild offenses are thrown into the same bucket as clear insults.  Men who accidentally offend are viewed in the same way as those who purposely insult or demean.  And clearly that’s not good.

*From Michael Dobbs, Madeline Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey

This blog is also posted at Thrive Global






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What if Women Helped Women — Paltrow, Judd, Jolie Joined Forces? Change Would Begin

Not that this lets men off the hook.  If you’ve worked with mostly men, as I have, you hopefully know that the ones harassing and abusing power are a minority. And, as we’ve been learning this week, men have stood up and told other men to stop doing these things — particularly if the actions affected a dear friend or partner.

But, in my experience, when women are demeaned or pressured by powerful men to do things they don’t want to do, they often tell another woman. That’s the time when women should be able to support each other, to assess what happened and determine how to help.

What if Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd and the other women who have come forward were to join forces to develop a set of standards.  These would be signed by powerful people with whom they and other actresses and artists might work.

What if they insisted that these standards be applied and set up a program to assure that result? Meaning that any person or organization that didn’t adhere to the standards would hear from that program. What if they were to accrue power so their voices would be heard? Then change would happen.

This isn’t just a solution for Hollywood. It can work in any organization. It isn’t anti-men or blind to the fact that some men are falsely accused. It is a start toward a solution for women who have been demeaned, harassed, sexually pressured or worse.

We have to start somewhere. And there is no time like the present.

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The Secret Handshake Audible Version — Amazon Business Life Bestseller

The Secret Handshake has been on Amazon business bestseller lists during the last 17 years and at the top of Amazon’s bestselling books. A few months ago, Recorded Books released the Audible version and it is now #24 of the Business Life Bestsellers. Kind of cool!!

Do you want to know about politics at work so you’re no the last to know what’s going on?

Link to The Secret Handshake here.

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What’s Missing From This Photo? And, by the way, speed is not a Quality of Leadership — Special Forces Just Died In Niger But No Mention. Instead Pressuring Generals/Admirals to Hurry Up

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Persuading Lawmakers to Protect Us From Gun Violence

One of the most persuasive opinion pieces on the issue of gun control was published yesterday in the New York Times. “Want Gun Control? Learn from the N.R.A.” by Hahrie Han proposes that we look at why rational arguments simply don’t work when it comes to convincing lawmakers and those opposed to gun control to take measures protecting U.S. citizens from gun violence.  It’s an article about persuasion even though the author does not describe it as such.  Han is a University of California Santa Barbara expert in the study of civic and political participation, collective action, organizing, and social change, particularly as it pertains to social policy, environmental issues, and democratic revitalization.

One of the primary arguments advanced by Han is this:

The N.R.A.’s power is not just about its money or number of supporters or a favorable political map. It has also built something that gun-control advocates lack: an organized base of grass-roots power.

Han argues that gun-control groups focus on persuasion, while gun-rights groups focus on identity.  In a way, though, the latter is a form of persuasion.  Homophily, or the sense of similarity people feel toward others, is one of the primary aspects of source credibility.  In persuasion theory and research terms, that means to the extent you seem to be like me in some important ways, I’m more inclined to listen, be attracted to, learn from and side with you.

Han posits that the N.R.A. has formulated a base via relationships.  As a cohesive collective this base is more powerful than gun-control advocates who cling to common sense and moral outrage but don’t come together as protectors of a way of life.  She adds that there are more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonalds.  And, the N.R.A. can bring 80,000 people together for a conference — people who see themselves as protectors, not simply of guns, but of a way of life.

I always start my persuasion and negotiation classes and presentations with the observation that no idea, no matter how sensible, attractive, intriguing, or clearly presented, stands on its own.  To persuade those on the fence about the need for gun common sense and even those who consider themselves opposed to automatic weapons, for example, we need to think about the way of life such common sense protects.  We can’t visit the issue occasionally and hope for change.  Gun lobbyists will wait for the horror in Las Vegas to fade in memory.  To bring about change, moral outrage must be converted to consistent, collective action protecting the lives and liberties of the innocent.

Four million have joined the Everytown for Gun Safety, Han points out.  But that’s just a start.  Only when a substantial base is formed of people invested in protecting the rights of those who merely wish to attend a concert or go to school will we possibly see change. Only when that base repeatedly, doggedly pounds on the doors of senators and congress people “owned” by gun lobbies insisting that they refuse to take money from them will we see change.

It isn’t enough to be right about the need for what I’d rather call gun management than gun control as the latter evokes defensiveness.  There needs to be more understanding of why so many people are willing to risk the lives of innocent people so that they might purchase whatever guns, in whatever quantity, they wish.

Effective persuasion is about knowing how the other side thinks.  Those who advocate for gun control must clearly define a view of the future with which people who own handguns and/or hunting rifles can identify.  They must provide opportunities for those morally outraged by gun violence to come together and grow in both voice and number. Until these things happen, we can expect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be robbed again and again from innocent people simply wishing to go about their daily lives.








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Are You in a Patient Style Rut?

After blogging on the front page of Huffington Post since 2005, Arianna Huffington invited me to blog on her site Thrive Global. As a former professor not only of business and communication, but also preventive medicine, it’s a good fit. Here is the first of what I hope will be many blogs with Thrive Global where well-being is a high priority.  See what patient communication style fits you.

Link to “Are You in a Patient Style Rut?”

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