Not too many years ago my general manager called me into her office and with a sly smile pushed a memo across her desk.
It was written by one of the station's lead anchors, accusing me of something called "inappropriate touching." The GM (still smiling for some unknown reason) asked me to explain.
OK. The night before, a few minutes before the 6:00 o'clock news, I was standing next to the anchor's newsroom cubicle going over show details when she rose to put on her red blazer. When the jacket was on she had a half-inch of white cuff showing from under one red sleeve, and no cuff showing under the other. I casually remarked that she needed to "shoot" her cuffs. She said she didn't know what that meant. I explained that she needed to have the same amount of white shirt cuff showing from under each coat sleeve. She still didn't seem to get it, so I reached out with a thumb and forefinger, pinched her shirt cuff and pulled it forward so a half-inch was showing under her sleeve. "See," I said, "shoot your cuffs! That's all there is to it" And that's all there was to it.
The memo's version was that other members of the news staff who witnessed the "incident" (that's what it was now, an "incident") were shocked ("SHOCKED!") by my inappropriate behavior!
By now my blood was starting to boil, when I looked up to see the GM laughing! I told her it was no laughing matter—and she said I shouldn't worry, it had been handled. She said she had called the anchor in to go over the complaint and that the anchor had back-tracked completely. According to the GM the anchor said she was just in a bad mood; she took an innocent moment out of context; she didn't want to pursue the matter any further; and she'd appreciate it if the GM tore up the memo as if it had never been written.
"That's the end of that," the GM said, smiling.
That's when I brought her up short. "No, it's not" I said, "you cannot destroy that memo. You must forward it to corporate, and a copy must go in my file. Now, I have to be given a chance to respond--in writing--but you need to draft a detailed note for my personnel file, for corporate and for your own files explaining your conversations with the anchor and with me. Then the whole thing needs to be run by corporate attorneys for their advice on how to proceed. They might want you to interview everyone who was in the newsroom at the time for their recollections."
The GM, nonplussed, asked me to explain my reasoning.
I told her to draw her own conclusions, but that in my personal opinion this was part of a scheme to file a lawsuit and seek damages. My thinking then—and now—was that at some future date some other "incident" would be trumped up and I would be accused by this employee of sexual harassment. At that point the anchor would say, basically—Oh, yes, this has been going on for a long time. I wrote a detailed complaint to the GM (Why, I just happen to have a copy--actually several copies--notarized--right here!), but nothing was ever done about it. I even have reason to believe my original memo was DESTROYED as part of a station-wide coverup.
And that, I explained, is how employees with good lawyers get to retire to Aruba and spend all day in cabanas sipping frozen drinks from frosted glasses with little paper umbrellas in them.
The GM immediately saw my reasoning and agreed.
But that's when I modified my methods.
I touch no one—except for an occasional atta-boy handshake. No pats on the back, no arm around the shoulder, NO HUGS! No contact! A few years later a producer (female) started to give me a friendly shoulder rub as I sat in the newsroom and I jumped as if I'd been jabbed with a cattle prod! My reaction actually startled and offended her, and damaged our relationship. She didn't think what she was doing was over the line, but I knew someone else could: and if they could they would! She thought I was making too much out of nothing. I did too, but these days you can't take chances. I've received Red Cross CPR training, but if someone suffers a heart attack and stops breathing in front of me he or she better be conscious enough to sign a permission/release form (in triplicate) and have it notarized before I'll start the chest pounding!
(Just kidding about the CPR. But by the way—honestly now—what was YOUR reaction to the back rub anecdote? What would it have been ten years ago? Twenty years ago? How have your attitudes towards touching in the workplace changed? When I worked for the old Storer Broadcasting Company many years ago managers were given a class that included tips on how to touch people! To show sincerity, grasp someone's upper arm with your left hand as you shake hands, that sort of thing. But that was then.)
I'm never alone in private with a female staffer—I always have someone with me—preferably another manager--and I leave the office door open whenever possible or have the conversation in a public place.
I never close the blinds to my office—no sense inviting trouble.
I make written notes of all meetings where job performance is discussed—and ask the other manager(s) present to independently do the same, then file them.
I copy corporate Human Resources--on almost EVERYTHING!
I tell ya, friends, it's not the way I grew up! When I started in this business there was a certain camaraderie among news staffers. In newsrooms in the old days the air was blue with cigarette smoke and bluer still from some of the language we used. We were a rough-and-tumble bunch: women, too. Ever see Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday? That's what I'm talkin' about. We were friends, and we always knew where to draw the line for each co-worker. There were things you did and didn't do, did and didn't say. But we made allowances for each other because we all counted on the good-heartedness of our brothers and sisters.
I got out of college in the late sixties. I've done my best to keep up with the changing consciousness of the times. Ive learned to be politically correct. In terms of race, over the years the word "colored" gave way to "Negro"—then to "black"—then to "African-American" and now (when appropriate) "People of Color." I've done my best to follow along, to follow The Golden Rule: you know, "Do Unto Others."
I've never called a woman a "broad" in my life. Never whistled at a "dame." Never commented on a woman's figure. Only twice in my life have I asked a co-worker for a date (mistakes both times, and lessons learned).
Hey, I understand the need to protect employees from despotic management. Who's going to protect management from despotic employees?
If I knew then what I know now, I'd have gotten into Human Resources. I don't know if there's much of a future in broadcasting anymore, but there will always be big-bucks jobs for people who get their wisdom out of handbooks and rule books and manuals, who teach Newspeak, Doublethink, and serve much like the Thought Police in Orwell's 1984.
I'd have either gotten into HR, or I'd have filed a lawsuit against someone, sometime for something. I like those drinks with the little umbrellas in them.