The party’s over. Our offices can no longer be fun places where men and women interact and socialize casually without consequence.
Earlier this week, The New York Times published a poll revealing that two-thirds of Americans think that people should take extra caution among members of the opposite sex at work, and a third think that one-on-one meetings with them are always inappropriate. So it’s not just Mike Pence who has a problem with such encounters. Traditional patriarchal Christian views are clearly not to blame for the fact that 44 percent of American women actually find it inappropriate to have lunch alone with someone who is not their spouse.
We don’t live in the era of “Mad Men,” where the three-martini lunch is common. Few men are pinching the bottoms of their secretaries when they are standing behind them in the elevator. (Who even has a secretary anymore?)
‘This is not the time to get drunk and tell people what you really feel and who you’re attracted to. This is a work event.’
– Emily Yoffe
So what is going on here? For men, the answer probably has a lot to do with the legal climate. In an era when more than 12,000 sexual-harassment complaints are filed with the EEOC each year, many men realize they can jeopardize their jobs and financial futures if they even appear to be crossing a line.
Yes, there are prominent recent cases of men who got away with bad behavior for years, but they were not middle managers at large companies. They were outsized personalities who brought in tens of millions of dollars for their employers each year — perhaps worth the risk of a lawsuit. Lower down on the financial totem poll, everyone from restaurant managers to college professors has started leaving their office doors open if they need to have a meeting with a young attractive woman.
But what about women? Why do they find such encounters problematic? For one thing, as the culture at large has become cruder and men have become more openly piggish, the pressure on women to go along with it has grown. Men make disgusting jokes at meetings or during business lunches in front of women in part because they’ve been taught there’s no difference between men and women. Men have “Wedding Crashers.” Women have “Bridesmaids.” Men have “Striptease.” Women have “Magic Mike.” It’s all good, right?
Similarly, women have followed men down the rabbit hole of excessive drinking.
On college campuses, it is not uncommon to see women compete with men in their alcohol consumption. Men always got sloppy drunk. Now — thanks to barrier-breaking feminist crusaders — women can also drink till they pass out.
For some offices, drinking is pretty rare and confined to a beer or two at the company picnic. But it is amazing to hear about the number of people who get totally blitzed at office holiday parties. As Emily Yoffe, who used to write Slate’s Dear Prudence column, had to advise people on several occasions, “I think the big thing to remember about office parties is that the operative word is ‘office’ . . . This is not the time to get drunk and tell people what you really feel and who you’re attracted to. This is a work event.”
But there are plenty of offices where the party atmosphere happens all year round. Take the e-commerce startup, Jet.com, which held regular in-office happy hours each week and had at least one cupboard full of liquor. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, employees sometimes even drank at their desks. But when Jet.com was acquired by Walmart recently, the spigot got switched off.
After employees at the Hoboken startup objected, Walmart brought back office drinking in a more limited way. But the retail giant was right the first time.
While some of the inappropriate behavior that goes on in offices — especially in the world of startups — does not involve drinking, much of it does seem to rest on the idea that the work environment needs to be relaxed and fun. Google was famous for offering employees not only food and drink but also free massages and haircuts. Facebook has personal trainers and a bicycle repair shop and a place to get haircuts. Maybe the giants of Silicon Valley see these perks as breaking down barriers among employees and allowing them to stay at work while accomplishing personal tasks.
But, in truth, we should be separating our professional lives from the personal. If we want to usher in an era where men and women are both offered opportunity for advancement in the workplace and treated with respect, the solution doesn’t lie in calling HR or a lawyer whenever a boss acts like a lech. That approach has been tried for 20 years now. No, the answer is to make work more like, well, work.