Your Guide to Workplace Interactions in the #MeToo Era

how to navigate the workplace in a #metoo environment

A male leader recently shared with me that during an external meeting a couple of people, who work for other companies, were using excessive profanity. He felt it was inappropriate and the language made him uncomfortable. He thought that it was also likely that it was offensive others, including a female colleague. So he spoke up, saying, “Profanity is not adding anything to this conversation, can we please dispense with it.” After the meeting, his female colleague said to him, “If I’m offended by something, I’ll speak up for myself.”

That’s an example of one of the challenges men and leaders find themselves in today. They want to work effectively with women, but it’s not always easy to know what to do and how to do it.

My perspective is that his action were spot on. He was not “rescuing” his female colleague. He did what he is supposed to do as a leader – challenge and address inappropriate behavior.

Increasingly, men and women tell me that they are unsure and confused about how best to interact with colleagues of the opposite sex, especially during this time when incidents of sexual harassment have come to light.

I agree with Johnny Taylor, the president of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose point of view is that “The #MeToo movement will fail if it focuses on “legalistic solutions rather than practical ones.”

It will take your individual action to change our workplace cultures so that both men and women can reap the benefits that come from gender-balanced teams and leadership.  Institutional policies, legal action, and harassment training, while imperative are insufficient.

men and women sexual harassment in the workplace

I’ve been asked about whether it’s ok to still hug in the workplace and have read about companies who have limited men and women traveling together on business trips,, or from sharing rental cars. While the majority of harassment incidents involve men acting inappropriately or criminally against women, heads of HR have recently shared with me that their companies have also had to address and pay out settlements for women who have harassed men as well as for men harassing other men.

So, what can you do?

It’s a matter of what to STOP and what to START


Don’t tolerate harassment of any type – sexual or otherwise. Work cultures that allow bullying, shouting, demeaning others, excessive profanity, inappropriate humor, etc., signal to employees that unprofessional behavior is acceptable. These types of environments are frequently the ones where sexism and sexual harassment also occur.

When you see something, do something.

Start with yourself.  Be aware of what you say or do. As a millennial male at a startup appropriately explained to me, “There’s a fine line between charming and creep.” If someone does not respond to something you say or do –  if they ignore you, go out of their way not to sit next to you, roll their eyes, look away, look uneasy or look angry – you’ve most likely crossed the line.

If you need more guidance on what inappropriate action looks like and what to look for, here are some great videos of what harassment looks like.

the way women work men women in the workplace interact

Be aware of what’s happening around you. If you see or hear someone acting inappropriately, take these types of actions ( in ascending order of confrontation):

  • Don’t laugh.
  • Stare at the person acting inappropriately with a disgusted look on your face.
  • Talk to the person privately and share your concerns convey that, “We don’t tolerate that type of behavior here.”
  • If you are afraid to or feel that there will be negative consequences to you if you confront an offender on your own, Mike Kimmel, the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University and the founder of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, recommends this approach:
    • Observe which of your colleagues shared your concern the offending actions or comments. They are the ones who also grimaced and looked down.
    • Approach them and tell them how you feel. Ask if they feel the same way. Then tell them that next time this person acts inappropriately, you are going to say something and you would appreciate it if they would come in right after you and also say something. Get their commitment to join you.
    • That way when you speak up you will be joined by your peers.
  • Call the person out publicly and say, “That’s not ok,” “That’s not acceptable,” “That’s disgusting,” or “There’s no room for that here.”

Stopping sexism and harassment is imperative, but a respectful, safe workplace is the most minimal of expectations we all have of our work environment. We all want way more than that. We want to be respected included, supported, encouraged, treated equally and have access to leadership and opportunities. So, that’s the START part. 

be proactive engage women at work


Don’t back off: Be more engaged.

There’s no need to make it more complicated than it is. If you are capable of learning about your industry, your area of expertise (like coding, engineering, banking, architecture, etc), you can also learn how to work well with the opposite sex.

If you think you don’t know enough about it, ask colleagues who are comfortable and competent in their interactions with women, read, attend training or hire a coach. Women have been working to improve how they work and communicate with men in the workplace for over a hundred years.

Some steps that both men and women can take:
  • Get a female mentor.
  • Regularly meet with and have meals with your female colleagues.
  • Include women on high-profile projects and assignments.
  • Travel with your female colleagues.
  • Mentor, sponsor and advocate for your female colleagues.
  • Diversify your network – set a goal to meet and develop relationships with women.
  • Participate in “women’s events” or employee resource groups.
  • Raise your antenna and become more aware of how women respond to the way you interact and communicate with them. 
  • Ask women what’s going well for them.
  • Develop relationships with female clients.
  • If you are a banker, lend money to women.
  • If you are an angel investor or VC, invest in women lead businesses.

You can do it. It’s not hard. Be respectful. Listen. Value their input and perspective. Recognize and appreciate the differences in their style and leadership approach. Learn from them. Share decision making. Act like your mother is watching you.

Taking these actions will help you in your own career or business as much as it will help women.

P.S. My answer to the question about hugging when greeting someone: Think about your intention when you reach out to hug someone. Is it completely professional and out of friendship? In Western cultures, if you have a long standing, comfortable, respectful relationship with the person, are used to greeting them with a hug and they respond enthusiastically and in kind – keep hugging. If you don’t know the person or have recently met them, a simple handshake will suffice. In some parts of the world, men and women don’t shake hands. In others, men and women who meet for the first time, kiss on both cheeks. Be aware of the appropriate and acceptable norms where you live and work and act accordingly.