Why Your Employees Think You're a Creep -- And How to Avoid Being One
I have this nasty habit of saying what’s on my mind. Being fearlessly direct and willing to oppose the status quo has played a big role in my career. But my big mouth has also gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion.
A couple of weeks ago, I told my wife I thought a woman we’ve been working with was attractive. I know it was dumb. Not because I said it to my wife. We’ve always been open and secure. It’s what happened next that’s the problem.
My wife told the woman -- even worse, she embellished -- that I said she was hot. My wife was trying to stir up trouble, I guess. I don’t know if this woman is creeped out at all, but I sure am. The last thing I want is for her to think “What a creep,” when she sees me.
The truth is, I should have known better. I’ve always had a strong work ethic and a healthy respect for individuals that kept me from crossing the line. But that line has become increasingly blurred thanks to runaway political correctness. With more and more of us leading entrepreneurial work lives that involve all sorts of business relationships, it’s not always clear who you can be candid with and who you need to be careful around.
Here are five practical rules to help you (and me) stay out of trouble:
1. Don't talk about how people look, if you can help it. Jennifer Aniston’s sex-crazed character in Horrible Bosses aside, this is generally a guy thing. Besides, that was a movie. Anthony Weiner and Ben Roethlisberger’s sexting scandals were real life. And while texting lewd pictures is a far cry from telling a coworker she looks nice, be aware that being a little risqué is a lot riskier than it used to be. If you’re not sure if it’s cool, it probably isn’t.
2. Don't get too close to vendors and customers. There are boundaries for every professional relationship, whether you work for the same company or not. Remember Mark Hurd, the former HP CEO who got fired over his relationship with a marketing contractor? Never mind that nothing really happened or that third parties are not protected by the same legal statutes as employees are.
3. Don’t document your stupidity. Back in the day, you had to get caught doing it in front of others to get nailed for sexual harassment or discrimination. Now, it’s remarkable how many people document their stupidity in emails, text messages, and on social network sites. Remember, the internet and most of your communication is not only forever, it’s also discoverable in court.
4. Date with caution. The ever-increasing work-life blur has, for many of us, turned our work into our lives. It’s where lots of us meet our better halves. So dating coworkers, employees or the boss -- once taboo -- is now tolerated. Sort of. How you approach it is tricky. If you have a thing for someone, try becoming friends first. Take it slow. And, if you’re a guy or the boss, it’s safer not to make the first move.
5. Forget the law. I don’t mean that literally. Of course you should know the law. Just be aware that you can be sued by anyone for just about anything. It doesn’t matter whether you did anything wrong or not; it may still cost you -- and your reputation. An attorney I once knew used to say, “If people had an ounce of common sense, lawyers would starve.” Truer words were never spoken.
I despise political correctness. I think it’s taken all the fun out of work and turned our society into a bunch of thin-skinned whiners who get offended and sue if you look at them funny. Still, some company cultures are more PC than others and you’ve got to be practical.
If you find yourself parsing every word as it travels from your brain to your mouth, you’ve probably gone too far into the realm of the politically correct. Be direct, be genuine, be professional and have a little common sense. You’ll be fine.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.