Your coworkers are not your friends

In praise of formal workplaces

(Image credit: Illustrated | Images courtesy Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

As the #MeToo movement swelled throughout the fall and winter, many Americans paused to gawk at a curiously related sideshow: the brief spate of articles about men pondering how they should behave on the job to avoid accusations of harassment in this new hyper-aware reality.

The men in question seem to be perfectly sincere. They are not asking about the obvious cases; they know they cannot assault their colleagues or command an underling to perform sexual acts. Their concern is at the margins, the sort of behavior that might be misinterpreted with damaging results for all involved.

An exemplar of the genre is the Associated Press piece entitled "In wake of [Harvey] Weinstein, men wonder if hugging women is still ok." "Have we gotten to the point now where men can't say, 'That's a nice dress' or 'Did you do something with your hair?'" asked Steve Wyard, who works at an appliance company "where you just treat everybody the way you'd want them to treat your sister." Wyard is not alone, this report and others like it suggest, in questioning what is permissible in the post-Weinstein workplace.

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The typical response to these questions focuses on explicit consent in all things: You can hug a woman at work, but only with her verbal permission. And yes, that's better than the alternative, if the alternative is unwanted hugs that get you fired and leave your colleague feeling violated and scared.

But I think there's a better alternative: Don't hug people at work, because hugs are usually not appropriate in the workplace. In fact, much — if not all — of the marginal behavior that has these men worried about misunderstanding is suited more to friendship or family than the office. Outside of exceptional circumstances, it is too informal for work.

Unless you work with your actual sister, your office environment should not be one "where you just treat everybody the way you'd want them to treat your sister." Give coworkers the respect your sister deserves, yes, but not the familiarity. Work is (or rather, should be) a more formal place where the line these men worry they have unwittingly crossed is big and bright, not nebulous and dependent on personal preference.

To be clear, I am not proposing HR legalism in which we treat all congeniality with suspicion. I am proposing etiquette. In this I have Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, on my side. I recently came across a 15-year-old interview Martin gave to Harvard Business Review, and the advice she gives on workplace boundaries is a much-needed addition to the conversation #MeToo has engendered.

The last half century of revolt against formality has thoroughly eroded all "distinction between your business life and your personal life," Martin said, and so we tend to "treat colleagues as friends and family — often to disastrous effect." She continued:

Sexual harassment is a prime example. If you flirt with somebody at a party, that person can't have you arrested. But if you flirt at the office, it could cost you your job. Well, flirting at work has always been unmannerly. The distance of formality should make it obvious that office flirtation is wrong. But because people don't care about etiquette anymore, we have to use the law to make them obey. That is not trivial for the people involved. An exposed office flirt was once just a cad. Now someone who misunderstands the limits of office friendship could become a criminal with a record. The problem with many of today's workplace issues is that they are too subtle and nuanced for the law, which is a very heavy-handed instrument. But if people don't obey the rules of etiquette, we have no choice but to use the law. [Judith Martin, via Harvard Business Review]

The uncertainty that the Associated Press report describes exists significantly because the "distance of formality" is too often bridged at the office. It is good that victims of workplace harassment have options of HR and legal redress, but it would be better if "the limits of office friendship" were strong enough to prevent this harassment from happening at all.

And flirting is not the only thing Martin rightly says is unmannerly at the office, where informal "pseudofriendship" has created an unfortunate climate of ambiguity. She recounts receiving letters from executives asking what they should give their assistants for Christmas. "How should I know?" Martin said she replied. And more important, "how should you know? You probably shouldn't be so close to your assistant that you know her taste in perfume. Give her a bonus instead."

Were she tasked with answering Wyard's questions, it seems safe to say Martin would argue it was never mannerly to say "That's a nice dress" or "Did you do something with your hair?" at the office. That is the sort of thing we say to friends and family, and our officemates are neither.

That is not to suggest we cannot or should not make friends on the job. But it is to say most of our coworkers will only ever be coworkers (take a moment to think about how many of your friendships with former colleagues have any meaningful existence outside of Facebook), and inside the office, they should be treated accordingly.

To be formal is not to be rude — quite the opposite. It is to establish clear behavioral norms whose violation is easy to spot. It is necessary because, as Martin contends, "when you remove everybody's inhibitions, you create more problems than you solve." The point of etiquette in general and formality in the workplace in particular is "to inhibit the instinct to act on our offensive impulses," to steer well clear of those marginal cases where offense may not be intended but is given nonetheless.

So if you were wondering, in the wake of Weinstein, hugging at the office is not okay. But it wasn't really okay before Weinstein, either.

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