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August, 2021

The Lines Have Been Redrawn; “Build Back Better” with Respectful Workplaces in New York

By Tracey I. Levy

Perhaps one of the most troubling quotes coming out of the investigation of sexual harassment allegations raised against Governor Andrew Cuomo was his statement, “In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.”  He added, “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”

Indeed, there have been “generational and cultural shifts,” which were accelerated by the #MeToo movement.  The lines have been redrawn, expectations have shifted, and many organizations began revising their policies and practices years ago to hold employees to a higher standard of acceptable workplace behavior.  The law itself shifted substantially in New York State beginning in 2019, and employees (particularly managers) who do not recognize that shift now present a liability issue for their organizations.

Formerly, harassment was defined by the courts in New York, which looked to federal law to provide a wordy definition, considering, with respect to unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic, whether submitting to the conduct was made explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; submitting to or rejecting the conduct was used as the basis for employment decisions affecting an individual; or the conduct had the purpose or effect of “unreasonably interfering” with an individual’s work performance or creating an “intimidating, hostile or offensive” working environment, with the final element requiring consideration of whether the behavior was so severe or pervasive as to rise to the level of actionable harassment.  The standard is a mouthful to recite, hard to memorize, and overwhelming on a powerpoint slide.

In 2019, as part of Governor Cuomo’s “Women’s Justice Agenda,” the governor signed into law sweeping changes with regard to the legal standard and enforcement provisions for claims of sexual harassment.  Significantly, the law adopted a new, far simpler definition of sexual harassment (which was subsequently broadened to harassment based on other protected characteristics), as subjecting an individual “to inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment based on” a protected characteristic.  Not only is the new standard pithy, but the law then expressly goes on to state that an individual need not show that the behavior is severe or pervasive.  Rather, it is for the employer to demonstrate that the conduct was nothing more than a “petty slight” or “trivial inconvenience.”  The legal bar for asserting unlawful harassment dropped precipitously with the new law, and the governor’s press release at the time expressly quoted him trumpeting that change: “By ending the absurd legal standard that sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be ‘severe or pervasive’ and making it easier for workplace sexual harassment claims to be brought forward, we are sending a strong message that time is up on sexual harassment in the workplace and setting the standard of equality for women.”

So how could the very individual who made these legal changes a centerpiece of his legislative agenda have fallen so far short in his own behavior?  Why, in 2021, are we still so fervently teaching the lessons of #MeToo, and how can we effectuate lasting change?  These are the questions that keep me up at night, and that I mull over at random hours.  How do we “build back better” when it comes to workplace culture?

I have no magic antidotes, but certain elements are important in progressing toward a more comfortable workplace.

Commitment from Senior Leadership

As with so many other organizational changes, there needs to be buy-in from the top.  If senior leadership shares the New York governor’s perspective, little if anything will change in their organizations.  Senior managers need to lead by example – both in articulating a commitment to providing a respectful workplace, and in conducting themselves publicly and privately in a manner that comports with that articulated standard.

Putting Sidewalks Around the Law

Preventing harassment based on sex and other protected characteristics is the legal standard.  But when that is our only goal, we end up quibbling about whether an individual’s behaviors do or do not exceed the level of a “petty slight” or what we mean by a “trivial inconvenience.”  Organizations should aim for something broader – offering a “respectful” workplace to employees and everyone else in the workplace.  We need to define what we mean by “respectful,” and that definition should both embody and exceed the legal standard.  Perhaps that means that an organization equally prohibits bullying behavior, which is not singling someone out based on a protected characteristic, but which most certainly can create an uncomfortable or intimidating work environment.  Or perhaps the organization wants to define expectations with regard to how employees communicate with one another – that such communications should be civil, and that employees should be able to articulate their perspective and have their views duly considered.  Alternatively or additionally, employers might address respectful behavior in terms of collaboration, and fostering a team environment where individuals feel supported.  The common and essential component of all these definitions is that they put “sidewalks” around the law by setting forth standards that embody and exceed the current legal standard.  When our goal is broader than the legal standard, the harassment takes care of itself so to speak, in the sense that it is definitionally inconsistent with and therefore should not be occurring in a truly “respectful” work environment.

It Takes a Village

Managers cannot single-handedly root out harassing behavior or impose a culture of respect, nor can any individual or series of complaints give rise to lasting organizational change.  Rather, an organization needs to encourage, empower, and perhaps even mandate that its employees go from bystanders to “upstanders.”  Here the New York City subway safety tagline is most apt – “if you see something, say something,” and that is the mantra to be inculcated throughout the organization.  But it is not sufficient to adopt a catchy refrain.  Employees need to be trained – on what the standards and expectations are for measuring appropriate behavior, about how they can intervene, and on where to submit concerns.  The New York State or New York City versions of the mandatory harassment prevention training programs are not sufficient for that purpose.  Rather, targeted messages, specific to those expectations, need to be communicated to employees and then reinforced at periodic intervals.

You May Need to Change

At times, a manager will seek to excuse questioned behavior with a comment along the lines that the manager is “no different than I was when I started working here,” however many years ago that may have been.  In a nutshell, the manager’s comment precisely illustrates the problem.  The lines have been redrawn.  We are holding employees, and everyone in the workplace, to a higher standard than was the case in 2017.  But that higher standard may not be the optimal objective from a cultural perspective.  Creating a comfortable, respectful workplace requires organizations to do more.  In doing so, an organization may also reap manifold benefits in employee morale, retention, and productivity, as well as reputation, that “build back better” and even help the organization’s bottom line.

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