American Offices Once Playgrounds for Bad Behavior

"It was a looser, easier time," said Edgar Dannenberg, a New York City stockbroker, who remembers wild office Christmas parties, where people misbehaved, but went on to do their jobs well the next day.

"At one, I was ready to quit, but the girl I was dancing with said, 'let's continue,' and we ended up almost shacking up," said Dannenberg, now 96. "I don't remember when things started to change."

Today, all employers must provide harassment training, and that's not just for sexual advances, but for racial or other inappropriate behaviors and remarks, in order to "discharge" liability in employee lawsuits, according to Jane George-Falvy, an expert on human resources at the University of Washington.

Companies are required to provide training, and if they don't, they automatically assume liability in a "meritorious" harassment case, she said.

Getting on the Bandwagon

"Most employers are getting on the training bandwagon," said George-Falvy, director of the university's Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition.

"Before we even start training, an organization needs to develop a zero tolerance harassment policy that is written and disseminated to all employees."

Training needs to cover all elements of the policy, including how harassment is defined, enforced, and how to file. Role plays, examples from court cases, and test scenarios are often part of the training.

"Remember," George-Falvy said, "harassment is in the eye of the beholder."

The courts look for whether the alleged harassment creates a hostile or abusive work environment, and whether it interferes with the harassee's ability to do the job. The plaintiff must also prove that the behavior is severe and pervasive, and affects the terms of employment.

"The need to create a strong, zero tolerance policy certainly has contributed to the rise of this 'PC workplace,' and it is certainly undertaken, in large part, to avoid legal responsibility," said George-Falvy. But, the positive effects of the law have been that the workplace is now safer, and "definitely more welcoming to all."

That was not always so.

In 1994, Publisher's Weekly did a tongue-in-cheek expose of sexually suggestive practices in the book business.

One boss repeatedly called one of his senior editors a "bitch goddess," especially in editorial meetings.

A powerful male publisher said he was "personally hurt" when one of his female employees complained that her boss said, "You sure know how to fill out a dress."

Office romances were commonplace until the 1980s, when one high-profile relationship soured. Bendix Corporation's chief executive William Agee had an affair with a young manager, Mary Cunningham.

She skyrocketed up the corporate ladder at the industrial company, but was later forced out amid employee turmoil and public criticism of the relationship.

Even a decade later, in 1994, a Fortune magazine poll of chief executives found that nearly 75 percent of them agreed with the statement that romantic relations between workers are "none of a company's business."

Office Romances

Even today, online advice sites hear age-old stories of improprieties at work. The popular Web site posted this complaint recently:

"I work in an endovascular suite, which consists of nurses, radiology techs, scrub techs, and surgeons," the employee wrote.

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