American Offices Once Playgrounds for Bad Behavior

The key factor that defines a sexual behavior as sexual harassment is that it is unwanted by the victim.

But, what if an employee welcomes the jokes and gestures, the flirting and innuendo, the bodily contact?

Oops, that wasn't politically correct. Rewind from 2007 back to 1977.

At 25, Debby was the lone female on an all-male sales force for one of the nation's top computer companies. Most of her female colleagues were relegated to order processing and secretarial work.

"I worked in a man's world," said Debby, now a 55-year-old Silicon Valley sales person. "My father taught me about the old boys' network, and I carried a little brown book of jokes, most of them with filthy punch lines.

"After work, we'd meet at the Rusty Scupper bar, and we'd all keep the jokes going and going," said Debby, who did not want to use her last name for fear that her current bosses and colleagues would find her remarks sexually offensive.

When she changed companies and sold cell phones, Debby hung out with the technicians, offering free back massages, so her orders were first in line. The guys loved her, and she welcomed all of their advances.

But, by 2001, after sexual harassment policies began to take a firm grip on American industry, Debby found the casual approach that made her so successful for three decades, was now frowned upon.

'I'm a Married Man

"I went up to one guy who was a bit nerdy and homely, but I had known him for years, and began to massage his shoulders," she said. "A couple of weeks later, he came up to me and told me, 'I was really uncomfortable with you rubbing my back. I'm a married man!'"

In California, where Debby lives, and around the rest of the country, sexual harassment — and much of the sexual innuendo and colorful banter that goes with it — is mostly a thing of the past. And when it does happen, victims quickly seek redress.

Just this week, New York Knicks coach and president Isiah Thomas took the stand in his own defense against charges of sexual harassment made against him by his vice president of marketing, Anucha Browne Sanders.

In California, the most common type of sexual harassment complaint is filed when an employee is fired or denied a job or benefit, because he or she refused to grant sexual favors, or complained about harassment, according to that state's department of fair employment and housing.

Sometimes, an employee quits, because he or she can no longer tolerate sexual harassment or an offensive work environment.

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that sexual harassment of an employee by a supervisor violates federal law. The case, though much more extreme than Debby's behavior, set in motion much of the policies in place today.

Sexual harassment that is ''sufficiently severe or pervasive'' to create ''a hostile or abusive work environment,'' is a violation, even if the unwelcome sexual demands are not linked to concrete employment benefits, the court ruled.

The landmark case arose from a suit by Mechelle Vinson, a former employee of the Meritor Savings Bank of Washington, against the bank and a branch manager. Vinson said that her supervisor had forced her to have sexual relations many times, and that he had raped her, and fondled her and other women who worked at the branch.

For many workers of a different generation, behavior like Debby's was not sexual harassment at the time. But today, touching a co-worker is taboo, if it is unwelcome.

"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.

"The lead radiology tech (male) has been dating a female radiology tech, who is under his management. He also allows her to make numerous decisions, which no other tech is permitted to make. This situation seems to be OK with upper management."

Greg Ketchum, a psychologist who doles out advice on the site, responded, "I'm surprised to hear that the hospital administration is so asleep at the switch, so it sounds like it's up to you and your co-workers to flip that switch."

Ketchum, 57, runs his own executive coaching company, TalentPlanet in San Francisco, and has watched the work environment change over the decades.

"It mirrors changes in our culture, as a whole," said Ketchum. "You look back and people weren't so ready to sue each other over these issues. That goes hand-in-hand with heightened sensitivity about sexual and interpersonal issues at work."

All these attitudes evolved out of the civil rights, women's, and gay rights movements, according to Ketchum.

He is often hired by a corporation to work with an employee being groomed for success, to "shorten their learning curve," or to coach executives who are talented, but have "rough edges," like dressing people down in public and screaming at people.

"A male cannot assume, because he is standing around with three other guys at work, that he can make a locker room crack," said Ketchum. "That kind of humor gets tiresome."

But, Ketchum said he has noticed companies and their workers are going far beyond the laws regarding harassment. "A remark can be uncensored without being offensive," he said.

"Frankly, we are all too sensitive," he said. "Heightened training to cultural differences is a good thing, but it can be carried to the point where people are afraid to say anything. You can hear people self-monitoring."

Training a group of executives, Ketchum said a Hispanic man corrected himself to say "Latino."

"I think people aren't as comfortable with each other," he said. "There's an edge when you have to be careful with what you say."

Three decades ago, Ketchum's boss would walk through the office and shout out to the number two manager, "George, don't you think Greg's hair is too long?"

"Now, employees have a lot of independence, but no job security," Ketchum said.

Ketchum's 14-year-old son has grown up in a different age. "He gets all that political correctness at school," said Ketchum. "I was talking, and used the word Mexican, and my son said, 'Dad, you are so racist,' when all I did was identify someone."

Training Required

Debby, the lone female salesperson, has now adjusted to the new workplace. Both she and her "victim" were required to take an 8-hour sexual harassment class. She laughs about the incident now.

"For me, it was very comfortable back in the old days," said Debby. "I was raised with the slap on the back of the boys club. I fit right in, and was treated like one of the guys."

Today, Debby's 21-year-old daughter, who has just entered the work force, has a different view. She was offended recently when an older man flirted with her on her job at a golf course.

"Women are on a more even playing ground because of all the lawsuits, and they have a stronger voice in the business world," said Debby. "Back in those days, you got hit on, and you slept with the boss. And it wasn't to get farther up the ladder."