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When all else fails, look to the State Department (yep, you read that right) for guidance.

My friend, who is in sales, was out with a colleague the other day when her coworker said something racist about an ethnic group neither of them belong to. As many of us would be in 2018, my friend was stunned. She told her colleague that she didn’t think her complaint had anything to do with skin color, but days later, she was still upset about the incident. Her company had never given her sensitivity or diversity training or made it clear what employees were to do in such a situation.

It made me recall once working for a company that did.

A global powerhouse in financial information and news, Bloomberg LP is also a leader in employee benefits and human resources. For example, even before gay marriage became the law of the land in the US, Bloomberg was extending benefits to the partners of gay employees just as they would to those of heterosexual employees. The company also has the most progressive sexual and racial harassment policies I’ve ever heard of.

I remember my diversity sensitivity workshop, which all employees were required to attend, and which was conducted by a lawyer. Like many people, I saw it as a waste of time that could be spent working. After all, I was raised by feminists, am a minority and accept people of all sexual preferences. I thought I knew everything there was to know about handling discrimination in the workplace. I was wrong.

We were presented with a series of scenarios and asked to state what our reaction would be. One sticks out.

You and a female employee are at a client’s office for a sales meeting. The client tells a sexist joke. What do you do? I knew the answer wasn’t “laugh” or “acknowledge the joke.” I answered that a few reactions were acceptable, including ignoring the joke and pressing on. That was the wrong answer.

The only right one is this: Defend the female coworker, even if it loses the client’s business. That’s right. Bloomberg, a sales-based company, whose success is dependent on attaining and maintaining a client base, declares that I would have had to intervene?—?even if it cost us the client’s business.


Of course, this policy is self-serving in that it protects Bloomberg from harassment and discrimination lawsuits by employees, clients or other parties. But its effect on the company culture is profound nevertheless. In the six years I worked there, remarks that discriminated against anyone were simply not tolerated. My manager once stopped me in the middle of telling a story because he thought I might be about to say something ageist. He didn’t even want to hear the story, because if I said something offensive, he’d be required to act.

This zero-tolerance policy might not have eradicated discrimination entirely, but certainly set a standard, and was one of the reasons I was proud to work there.

Now some of you might be thinking this is an obsessive focus on discrimination by liberals who have taken political correctness too far. Valerie Martinelli, a management and HR consultant, disagrees.

“How can your employees be happy and productive if they don’t feel safe?” she asked me during a recent interview. Martinelli added that having strict discrimination and sexual harassment policies?—?and making them clear to employees, especially new hires?—?is crucial to the welfare of the company and all of its workers.

One in three women between 18 and 34 have been sexually harassed at work, according to a survey conducted by Cosmopolitan last year. The situation is even worse in the restaurant industry, where a recent study found a staggering 90% of women reported having experienced sexual harassment.

Most episodes of workplace sexual harassment can be fit into two categories.

1. The kind that’s obvious

This is known as quid pro quo?—?a person with power over another says, “If you go on a date with me I’ll promote you.” Legally, it’s pretty clearly defined: Don’t do this, and if anyone does it to you or a colleague, contact human resources?—?and possibly a lawyer?—?immediately.

2. The kind that isn’t

More common than quid pro quo violations are “hostile work environments,” which involve the kind of sexual harassment that’s less obvious than a male coworker making an obscene remark. “It can occur where jokes, suggestive remarks, physical interference with movement (such as blocking one’s path), pictures, cartoons, or sexually derogatory comments alter the circumstances of the workplace,” wrote Mark I. Schickman, an attorney who focuses on employment law, in an article on the website of the American Bar Association.

Because this kind of harassment is less obvious, and because so much of it goes unreported, it can be especially pernicious.

A single offense is generally not enough to create a hostile work environment, Schickman writes, but a severe incident can be sufficient. Crucially, he also points out that the legal definition of “hostile” is from the perspective of the victim, not the alleged harasser.

So if many of us, like my friend, work at companies where discrimination policy hasn’t been made clear, should we aspire to create one for ourselves?

In 1971, the Supreme Court extended the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect women from sexual harassment. Most employee handbooks likewise state clearly that discrimination of any type is not tolerated. So even if our employers haven’t clearly told us what conduct is expected in various situations, we can work it out for ourselves fairly easily.

For a solid policy you can use as a guide, look no further than the US State Department. While the following are part of its sexual harassment policy, we can apply its principles to all types of discrimination.

If it’s not G-rated, it’s not office humor.

Posting pictures, giving gifts or leaving objects on a person’s desk is inappropriate if they are sexual or discriminatory. In other words, save your off-color humor for your friends and family.

Take ‘no’ for answer.

It’s not sexual harassment to ask a colleague to get together during off-duty hours, as long as you do it respectfully. However, repeatedly asking someone out, after they have declined, is totally inappropriate. If you’re their supervisor, getting involved socially or sexually with an employee places you at risk of being charged with sexual harassment. Don’t do it.

Don’t stand too close to coworkers.

“Hovering” over a colleague or giving them insufficient personal space is not okay and may constitute a sexual harassment violation.

Don’t touch them, either.

It’s a shame we still have to say this, but we do. Even what you may consider innocent touches can be unwanted. Touching or grabbing of a sexual nature goes beyond harassment. It’s sexual assault, and it’s a crime.

The workplace extends beyond the office.

If you’re on a company-sponsored trip, at a convention, at the office Christmas party or after-work drinks on your supervisor’s expense account, you’re at work. Even if you’re out with colleagues who are also good friends, be careful. “A valid reason for dismissal as a consequence of an employee’s misconduct may exist if there is a connection between the out of hours misconduct and the employment,” says DLA Piper, a global business law firm.

Take complaints seriously by acting on them.

If you’re a manager and an employee brings you a complaint from an employee, protect that employee, your company and yourself by taking them seriously and doing something about it.

If you see something, say something.

Here’s one we can add based on Bloomberg’s example. If a colleague says something offensive, call them out. If you’re afraid to, report it to your supervisor. They might not take you seriously, which is why we have human resources.

Promoting diversity, by holding to standards like those we’ve discussed, is just good business: Fortune 500 companies with more women on their boards perform better financially, according to a study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that works to accelerate inclusion of women in the workplace.

And even if you aren’t the victim, you’re protecting your conscience. My mother is still haunted by an incident of discrimination she witnessed decades ago as a teenager, and did nothing about?—?just as my friend remains upset by her colleague’s discriminatory comment.