The Harsh Reality: Sometimes HR Has to Talk about Sex

50 Shades of HRThis week brings the much-anticipated (well, in some quarters) release of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 4 years you’re likely aware that the Fifty Shades trilogy has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. According to Boxoffice.com, the movie is forecast to make $89 million in the US and Canada over the upcoming weekend and it’s been reported that close to 50% of advance ticket sales in the US have been from fans under the age of 30; two-thirds of them are women.

And next Monday morning these moviegoers will flock back to their offices, gather around the water cooler or huddle in cubicles, and give a blow-by-blow discuss flogging, paddling and shackles with co-workers. Amidst all the breathless (no doubt) titillation, I can guarantee you there will also be employees who are offended and place a call to the HR Department. Most human resources practitioners are accustomed to having conversations about FMLA, WC, ADA, OSHA and LTD … but not so much BDSM.

This all got me thinking about the “Seinfeld” case. Who remembers that one?

In 1993, Miller Brewing Co. fired Jerold Mackenzie, an executive, for an incident that arose from his discussion of the show with a female colleague. Mackenzie, relaying the story line from an episode, explained that Jerry was unable to recall a woman’s name that was described as rhyming with a part of the female anatomy (Mulva? Gipple?). Mackenzie, embarrassed to tell his colleague Patricia Best what the character’s name (Dolores!) rhymed with, ended up showing her the word in a dictionary.

She was offended.

Mackenzie, after being fired for sexual harassment, sued Miller Brewing Co. and Patricia Best. The jury (10 women, 2 men) ruled for Mackenzie and ordered Miller Brewing Co. to pay $26.5 million. The verdict was appealed and eventually the entire jury award was set aside. (note: the actual case focused on issues other than harassment – specifically Mackenzie’s lawyers argued that Miller deceived him for years and dubbed it “misrepresentation to induce continued employment”)

I’m not suggesting that HR Directors send out emails admonishing staff “not to wear leather” but perhaps it’s advisable to listen for excess talk about riding crops and bondage. It may be time to figure out, once and for all, if the cultural norms of one’s organization include language or visual displays that, well, might not meet grandma’s approval. As the lawyers and Supreme Court like to say, a hostile work environment is one that is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” This means when you work in HR you need to watch out for that stuff. I’m not saying be a humorless prude…(lord no); don’t be like the HR lady I met at a recent conference who was upset that an attorney speaking-about-sexual-harrassment used anatomically correct words for body parts. Please don’t be like her.

I am saying that even though you may not find it easy to tell the guys on the loading dock to “knock it off,” sometimes you just have to do that. And you might have to use words you’ve picked up by reading “Fifty Shades Darker” in order to adequately convey your message.

Claims of a sexually charged hostile work environment are often not painted in black and white; sometimes they’re in shades of grey.

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image: classic HR swag via Cornerstone on Demand

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2 thoughts on “The Harsh Reality: Sometimes HR Has to Talk about Sex

  1. Well Put Robin. No, not going to see the movie. no, not reading the book. Yes..- cant wait to here all about it on Monday. Water cooler – here I come.

  2. Thanks Robin for this timely and most relevant piece. In a couple of days, I’m doing Sexual Harassment Training for a construction company and I could sure use this interesting “spin” on the topic! It will, certainly, help them “get it”!

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