Rules of Engagement

Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media believes both men and women should feel safe to work together. We understand a lot of guys are feeling a bit unsafe right now, or worried they may have said something that will land them in HR. Don’t worry, we love guys. And we will help you find the lines in any grey areas so that everyone can have a productive work life between the sexes. Please don’t be afraid of us! After all, this problem is about a small subset of predatory men (or women) who abuse their power, not the majority of men (or women). This isn’t a woman’s issue – it’s a human decency issue. So if you’re a normal guy you should be ok.  

Despite progress made to root out egregious predators or illegal behavior in the workplace, we are sensitive to reports and anecdotal stories from men limiting or changing how they interact with women in the workplace, fearing they might say or do something that could be misinterpreted as a sexual advance or harassment.  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media believes that men and women should be able to work harmoniously without fear of being wrongfully accused because the vast majority are good people, working with the best of intentions. We encourage women to give men the benefit of the doubt and be equipped with the communication skills to respond to uncomfortable scenarios, and be able to identify and know what to do with unlawful behavior. Segregating the sexes would only serve to further subjugate women (it’s not only unfair but illegal) so instead let’s seek to empower both sexes to work together towards a better future and outcomes for both men and women.

While the work of lasting change is happening, here are a few unwritten rules to guide your interactions with the opposite sex:

FIRST:  Don’t be a jerk.  Being a jerk by teasing someone or telling offensive jokes that demean them for their looks or gender is not OK and creates a hostile work environment often rising to meet the standard of sexual harassment.  Just be nice to your co-workers when interacting. You can even go a step further and try to help out a coworker faced with harassment by learning how to spot it and stop it from your point of view.

NEXT:  Don’t say something that you couldn’t also say in the exact same way to that person’s mother.  For example, you could say, “I like your top,” to both your coworker and their mother. But you would not say that while also raising your eyebrows suggestively and using your hands to cup your pretend breasts.  So keep your tone and “commentary” in line with what’s appropriate for a co-worker AND their mom.

THEN:  Remember, just because someone dresses provocatively, that does not mean they are asking for your sexual advances or interested in dating you, nor is it appropriate to make sexual comments based on their appearance.  While we agree everyone should dress appropriately at work, sometimes that means different things to different people. If the clothing is truly offensive or controversial, ask an HR ally for advice on how to handle it.

FINALLY:  Remember to use your best judgment.  Think before you speak or do. Think of how your words or actions might affect the other person and whether or not you would like it said or done to you.  Remember the Golden Rule. This is something we all learned on the playground and need to remember and put to practice as adults in today’s modern world.

Here’s a handy chart to help further differentiate between what’s appropriate and what’s not:


Saying, “I like your shoes.” “Ooooh.  I like your new f-me pumps.” Or “I like your shoes” with hand gestures and eye movements to insinuate sexiness.
Being alone with or having a closed-door meeting in your office with someone of the opposite sex. During the meeting positioning yourself so close to that person that you are touching, rubbing their knee, other inappropriate touching including asking them to sit in your lap. Kissing them when they ask you to keep it professional. Using sexual innuendo to talk about business matters.  Also, there should be no logical reason to lock the door unless there is a madman on the loose in the building.
Asking someone who is not your direct report and preferably not even in your department on a date.  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media knows first-hand that you can meet your spouse at the office in an appropriate way. Asking your direct report or inferior on a date and promising a career boost if they go or sleep with you.  Or engaging in or threatening retaliation if they don’t. This is something very tricky to do in an acceptable manner because of the power imbalance, so just ask someone else out who’s not a subordinate instead.
Wearing pants or a skirt in the office. Taking off your pants or skirt.  Walking around naked in a bathrobe. Masturbating in front of a co-worker.  Ejaculating into a plant in front of them. Revealing genitals in any way. (It may seem obvious, but these things actually happen.)
Offering to talk with someone about career opportunities. Offering to talk about opportunities and then asking for sex with or without offering a quid pro quo for career advancement.

While many of us have male mentors and colleagues, we recognize offering to talk about opportunities over a meal or drinks could be fine, many of us at Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media experienced harassment when put in this seemingly OK situation as young women.  If there is a practical way to avoid this, that may be a good idea. Even without an overt quid pro quo proposition, it is a gray area allowing for room for confusion. Set up informational interviews in your office and keep the door open, or get coffee in a public place.

Having lunch with a co-worker of the opposite sex. Having any meal with a coworker and asking for sex, especially in exchange for betterment in the workplace.
Sharing a photo of your new puppy or baby. Sharing images of your genitals or other pornographic images.
Telling jokes. Telling jokes of a sexual nature that could offend or demean a co-worker (save those for a night out with friends). Excluding women from leadership opportunities, group dinners or conversations because she won’t find the group’s sense of humor funny or you fear having a woman in the room will lead someone to end up in HR or in the headlines (unfortunately this can be considered unlawful discrimination). If you’re not sure what’s funny or appropriate, see items above.
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