We’re all creatures of habit to some extent. It’s just part of our charming personalities. Right? (Go along with me for now, I promise there’s a point buried somewhere in this post.) I know mixing things up is better for my brain, but sometimes not having to think is the way to go. For me, the uninterrupted flow of my morning routine has been a pillar of stability in my otherwise unpredictable workdays for years—until last week. That’s when the reality of two very frightening words entered my life—bathroom remodeling. For two weeks, I’ve been a guest in my spouse’s sacred domain: scheduling showers, cautiously using counter space, and doing my best to erase any signs of my presence as soon as I’m done each morning. Fortunately, today marks the end of that adventure and a return to our separate morning routines—our marriage still intact.
Many of us have also developed habits and routines at work. Raise your hand if you get annoyed when someone parks in “your” parking spot at the office. Or, maybe you like to arrive 20 or 30 minutes early to have your first cup of coffee and go through email.
Ken (not his real name), by all accounts, is a good employee and manager. With the company for more than a decade, Ken’s dedicated to its success, and respected by his employees. One of Ken’s most appreciated traits is that he takes personal responsibility for any issues involving his team. He takes the focus off the problem and moves everyone forward to a solution. To do this, Ken has a habit of using self-deprecating humor to diffuse potentially tense situations.
Last Wednesday, Barbie (also not her real name), a member of Ken’s team, made an uncharacteristic and significant error in a document she sent a new client’s executive team. The client’s CFO caught the mistake and emailed everyone on the distribution list. As expected, Ken took responsibility, promised a corrected copy by the end of the day, and wrote, “sorry, I must have been having a blonde moment!” (Wait…a what?!)
Barbie was infuriated and embarrassed by what she called Ken’s “passive-aggressive, stereotypical, gender-based attack” on her and her intelligence. Believing she was the victim of hostile work environment harassment (something she remembered from the state-mandated harassment prevention training), Barbie submitted a written complaint to the controller/HR director, Ms. Beasley. (An employee for more than 40 years, she felt honored when the CEO added HR to her responsibilities last year!) Seeing how upset Barbie was, Ms. Beasley told her to take the rest of the week off with pay while she “looked into the situation.”
During their meeting Monday morning, Ms. Beasley explained that she talked to Ken and that she believed Barbie “completely misunderstood” Ken’s email. “He was taking the focus off your mistake by making fun of himself!” When Barbie pushed back on her explanation, Ms. Beasley smiled a knowing smile and said, “I’ll bet this whole kerfuffle happened at the wrong time in your cycle, didn’t it? I can’t tell you how many times I overreacted to the silliest things and bit Mr. Beasley’s head off…bless his soul.”
Is your head ready to explode? Welcome to my world! This is usually about the point when I get a call from an executive who doesn’t understand what went wrong or what to do next.
Let’s do a little armchair analysis of what happened:
- Was Ken’s comment about “having a blonde moment” potential hostile work environment harassment? Probably not. Barbie is blonde. But that fact doesn’t matter because “blonde” is not a protected category under state or federal anti-discrimination laws. Barbie’s attempt to link her gender to a poorly-conceived blonde joke is, at best, weak because hair color is not linked to a specific gender, re-enforced by the fact that both Barbie and Ken are blonde.
- Was Ken’s “blonde moment” comment OK? In my opinion, it was inappropriate. Yes, Ken is blonde, and taken in context, he was clearly referring to himself. However, at its core, the comment relies on a perceived stereotype that blondes are dumb. Someone—not Ms. Beasley!—should work with Ken to help him better understand the issue and avoid stepping in it going forward.
- Was Barbie overreacting? No, I don’t think Barbie overreacted. Regardless of the intention or nature (innocent, passive-aggressive, harassing, etc.) of Ken’s comment, it resulted in an immediate and extremely adverse reaction from Barbie. There are likely other issues—work-related stress, burnout, conflict, or personal misfortunes, financial distress, health concerns—that are at the root of the reaction. Another clue is that the error she made was described as “uncharacteristic.” My educated guess is that something else is causing Barbie a high level of stress. That stress, combined with her perception of Ken’s comment, caused her to react as she did.
- Ms. Beasley (open palm to forehead). Wow, where to begin? Unfortunately, there are still a significant number of Beasleys of every gender and age working in companies everywhere. Intelligent, dedicated, and well-meaning, their lack of HR training and experience can sometimes be detrimental to the company and its employees. Here, let’s say she did a lot wrong.
- Surely giving Barbie two days of PTO while Ms. Beasley “looked into the situation” was appropriate and generous, right? Wrong. It’s rarely, if ever, appropriate to move, reassign, or remove the complainant from the workplace. Regardless of whether the time off is paid, removing the complainant from the workplace can be perceived as a punishment and retaliation for their complaint. In my experience, the only exception is when the complainant requests time off, and it should be provided with pay for the days they were scheduled or would typically work. Otherwise, when it’s appropriate or necessary to separate the parties during an investigation, the alleged harasser(s) should be moved, reassigned, or suspended with or without pay.
That’s a wrap on another Fridays with Frank. Thanks for spending a small part of your day with me, and have a great weekend!
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute a legal opinion, and is not legal advice. The facts of each situation should be considered and analyzed individually. Therefore, you should always consult with competent employment counsel regarding any issues discussed here.
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