10 Rules for Avoiding Committing Sexual Harassment (Hint: Guys, It Shouldn’t Be So Hard)

I know many men who are wonderful managers who hire, respect, mentor, and promote women professionally because it’s the right thing to do and good business. But so many guys are getting accused of sexual harassment these days, it seems like some may not be aware what it actually entails. And here’s a really good reason why dudes should wise up fast — to protect their careers.

Because women aren’t silently taking being abused and discriminated against anymore. The solidarity of the #metoo movement has resulted in a wave of women coming forward to speak about sexual harassment, and they’re naming names. Prominent men are being called out across industries like entertainment, journalism, education, government, and restaurants. And gosh, those accusations are landing the big shots in big trouble — their reputations destroyed, work discredited, organizations floundering, relationships in shambles. Not to mention the lawsuits.

Some companies are rushing to introduce anti-harassment training programs and women have been told how to discourage it, but men, do you really want to put your whole career in delicate female hands? No, you want to take control! So, if you’re not the kind of guy who naturally finds sexual harassment morally and ethically repugnant, or if you just get confused about what behavior crosses the line, here are some rules to follow to protect yourself — and your livelihood.

Rule #1 — No meetings in bedrooms. With the Harvey Weinstein scandal, even Hollywood has learned their lesson with this one. As publicist Marcel Paiseau said in the Chicago Tribune, “No one is going to be going to a producer or director’s hotel suite anymore.” He added, “All meetings will be done with somebody else in the room for protection for both sides. It’s a defining moment. It’s vigilance.”

If you’re staying out of town, rent a meeting room or book one of those cool co-working office spaces. Or meet at Starbucks like everyone else, for God’s sake.

Rule #2 — Wear clothing. Make it a policy that everyone who attends your meetings is fully clothed throughout, especially you. Bathrobes, towels, underwear, and bathing suits don’t count. Don’t ever ask or pressure a woman to take off her clothes. If being semi-clad is part of her actual job and she’s being paid to do it (i.e. lingerie model, swim instructor) always have another person she knows and trusts present.

Rule #3 — Lose the locker room. The restaurant business is known for having a “bro culture” but, as the downfall of renowned chef John Besh shows, this macho stuff isn’t going to fly anymore. So don’t talk or joke about sexual organs, preferences, or acts — yours or anyone else’s. Don’t call women sweetie or babe or any other diminutive nicknames. Don’t make sexist or misogynistic comments or allow coworkers to do the same, because it creates an environment that’s toxic to women. “A sexualized workplace is a dangerous workplace for women. When the entire culture of a place is lewd, it makes it impossible to tell which men are dangerous,” says Tracie McMillan in her essay for the New York Times, “When the Kitchen Isn’t Safe for Women.”

Rule #4 — Hands off policy. Greet a woman the same way you would a male colleague — with a handshake. Hugging, groping, prodding, patting, kissing, spanking, massaging, or rubbing against your female business associates are all big no-nos. Beyond a warm handshake and maybe a light touch on the arm, hands off. Being touched anywhere else makes a woman uncomfortable and puts you at risk of crossing the line from sexual harassment to sexual assault. Even wheelchair-bound former President George H.W. Bush can’t get away with copping a feel. And, unless you’re choking to death and signaling for the Heimlich maneuver, don’t ask a woman to touch you anywhere.

Rule #5 — Style isn’t seduction. Whatever a woman wears, know that her appearance is not an invitation for sexual or romantic overtures or commentary. Don’t talk about her body or the fit of her clothes. Even if you think it’s a compliment, don’t tell her she looks hot or smoking or pretty. Don’t ogle her breasts, butt, or legs. It’s demeaning and objectifying. Some women make a point of dressing modestly in hopes to avoid this type of creepy attention, but it’s your responsibility to set a professional tone and treat her respectfully.

Rule #6 — Weiner watch out. Don’t use porn at work. Don’t send pornographic links or photos to coworkers, male or female. Don’t take photos of your genitals and send them to colleagues. Anything digital leaves a trail and, as former Congressman Anthony Weiner can attest from his jail cell, it can be used as evidence against you.

Rule #7 — It’s not a date. Sharing a meal or a drink with a female colleague might feel like a social occasion, but it’s still business. A woman may be friendly, animated, and engaged, but that doesn’t mean she wants to date or sleep with you. It may feel confusing, but you should assume the reason she’s meeting with you is because she is interested in developing a professional relationship — not a personal one. Consider yourself in the friend zone and you’ll avoid misunderstandings and get a lot more work done in the process — which is the point!

Rule #8 — Don’t be a stalker. Avoid showing up unannounced at a female colleague’s home in the middle of the night to insist they let you in. Don’t barrage them with personal texts, Facebook messages, phone calls, or emails. Keep your communication to business hours and stay away from personal topics.

Rule #9 — Sex isn’t part of the deal. Most importantly, never tie the outcome of a business, policy, or personnel decision to the condition of a woman performing personal or sexual favors for you. If you are more senior or you’re a client or you have influence over the outcome of the contract/transaction/deal, then you have the power in the situation and you are especially responsible for creating a respectful and safe work environment (although sexual harassment is not dependent on level or reporting relationship.) 

Rule #10 — No means NO WAY IN HELL! If a woman says “No, I don’t want to, I feel uncomfortable, stop, get away,” makes an effort to hide or leave, becomes silent, laughs nervously, or cries — these are signs you have seriously crossed a line and need to back off, apologize, and end the meeting immediately. Then book yourself into one of those sexual harassment awareness classes pronto. Remember, your career is at stake.


Note: This piece is written as if the harasser is male and victim female, which is common but not always the case

If you’re a victim of sexual harassment, regardless of your gender or the gender of your harasser, here are some resources that can help:


More from Make It Better: 

Marjie Killeen

Marjie Killeen is a freelance writer who has been covering sex and relationships for Make It Better since it began. She is a regular supporter of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and is a member of the Human Rights Campaign.







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