Defining and Responding to Sexual Misconduct

Here is an interview on AirTalk KPCC with host Alex Cohen, guests Michele Goldsmith, chair of the labor and employment division of LA-based law firm Bergman, Dacy, Goldsmith, and myself.

Some good tips here from the legal side and from my work on the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) and a repertoire of comebacks women can use to nip such conduct in the bud. That repertoire is in the post below, “Did You Really Say That?”  More such on-your-feet-responses for women and men are in my book, Comebacks at Work.

Interview here

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Sexual Misconduct as a Spectrum


Here is an interview I did with David Brancaccio appearing on Marketplace Morning Report blog today about the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW).  The spectrum is in the blog following this one.

In the interview, we discuss how companies can use the SSMW — how we all can use it — to determine whether a statement or behavior is perhaps mildly offensive or much more serious.  We also talked about how companies can adapt it to include other examples.

David and I also talked in an interview aired today about the wider issues women face at work and how my Harvard Business Review 1993 case that went viral then,”The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk,” still has relevance today.  Nearly twenty-five years ago, David’s mother-in-law had shared it with his aunt who’d shared it with David’s wife, Mary. His aunt and Mary reminded him of the case and David tracked me down.  Have a listen.


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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 sexual misconduct begins.  We’re operating in a maze. It’s time for some clarity and direction. Aristotle distinguished between mistakes and wickedness. So can we. Here’s a start — this time focusing on male to female offense and misconduct.



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

Decisions about which category a behavior falls into depend on the situation, tone of delivery and nonverbal behaviors.  This is not a set of cut-and-dried categories. It’s a first-pass blueprint for organizations – a way to start talking about what is and isn’t sexual misconduct. Additional examples can be added, some moved. The point is to get this conversation underway.


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.”

Offensive (Not necessarily or overtly intentional) 

Holding a woman’s arm while talking

Uninvited hugs

Patronizing/dismissive/exclusionary behavior toward women

Sharing jokes about female blondes, brunettes, red-heads, etc.

Implying or stating women are distracted by family

Seriously Offensive (Intentional lowering of women’s value)

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

Comments about about physical attributes used to insult or demean a woman

Evident Sexual Misconduct 

Looking a woman up and down in a sexually suggestive manner

Grabbing, rude patting and unwelcome holding

Unwelcome, unexpected kissing

Ignoring a woman’s expressed disinterest in a personal/intimate relationship and continuing to hassle her

Making or telling crude jokes that demean women

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

Trying to demean a woman by implying/claiming she uses her gender to advance career goals

Egregious Sexual Misconduct

Exposing genitals

Physical sexual behavior while a woman is present

Pressing against a woman suggestively

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

Forcing or coercing a woman to have sex

UPDATE: The New York Times article “How a Culture of Harassment Persisted on Ford’s Factory Floors” by Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn (Dec. 19, 2017) provides examples of what blue-collar women have endured for years.  The term “snitch-bitch” was used to describe a woman who complained about sexual misconduct.  Others were hounded, prevented from doing their jobs, and accused of “raping the company.” One woman was referred to as “peanut butter legs.”  When she asked why, she was told, “Not only is it the color of your legs, but it’s the kind of legs you like to spread.”

Where do such examples and others in the article fit in the SSMW?  That’s what Ford and all companies need to ask — about egregious ones and lesser offenses.  In time, people will get it.  They’ll see that certain ways of talking to and acting around women are a bridge too far.  They’ll know when they’re in a danger zone and when they’re over the line.  It doesn’t take a genius to know what’s rather rude and what’s clearly crude. Both are bad, but the latter is worse.

The more examples companies place in the SSMW, the clearer misconduct will become. As the Ford story indicates, however, this exercise is not a one-shot effort.  It needs to happen over time and be revisited regularly.  Otherwise, companies slip back into old ways. Women experience retaliation and the workplace becomes hostile again.




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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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