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LeadingEdition: E-Newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors

Supervisors can build a culture of respect

Does this sound familiar? You're in the middle of sexual harassment training, and one of your male managers says, "Boy, I wish someone would harass me!" Or this: You hear a supervisor talking with members of her department about the physical attributes of the latest reality show competitors. Such situations are all too common, and they send the wrong message about management's views concerning appropriate workplace conduct.

If those scenarios sound familiar, it may be time to gather your supervisors for some awareness training. Here are 10 best practices you can pass along.

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Rule #1: Suggestive or sexual materials don't belong in the workplace
Period! That means the Victoria's Secret catalog, even if it's shared only among women. And a video clip of Janet Jackson's revealing moment at the Super Bowl halftime show. Yes, it was aired on national television, but that doesn't mean a reasonable person wouldn't find it offensive.

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Rule #2: Your co-workers aren't your family
A friendly working atmosphere is a good thing. If you treat a colleague as you would a spouse, significant other, parent, or child, however, it's time to reevaluate the relationship. Get back on the professional track.

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Rule #3: Eliminate derogatory language
If someone says "This project is a b-tch" or "The computer system is f---ed up," you should ask them not to use such language. True, some courts have recognized that this sort of shop talk isn't sexual in nature. Nonetheless, some people find it offensive, and the workplace is better off without it.

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Rule #4: Beware the nonverbals
One often-cited federal sexual harassment case describes a supervisor as making the sound "um um um" in the presence of an attractive subordinate. Other cases have included staring as allegedly offensive conduct. Put your supervisors on notice that sexual innuendo can come in the form of comments, sounds, expressions, or gestures. Regardless of the form it takes, it isn't appropriate professional conduct.

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Rule #5: Keep terms of endearment at home
That includes "honey," "sweetie," "dear," "chick," "sugar," etc. Even if it's not harassment, a term that's meant affectionately or as a joke can easily be inferred as condescending. Also, be aware of terms like "mom" and "gramps." Such names may be viewed as derogatory or disrespectful toward older employees.

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Rule #6: Watch the hands
A brief, professional handshake is fine. There's also nothing wrong with a light touch on the shoulder to get a colleague's attention. But going much beyond that is asking for trouble. Some supervisors use a "hands-on" approach to establishing rapport with colleagues � hugs, shoulder rubs, and other casual contact that's meant in a friendly way. Such contact (especially when it comes from a boss) can make people uncomfortable. Respect others' personal space, and try establishing rapport with a smile rather than physical contact.

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Rule #7: Sex life discussion = TMI (too much information)
Whether the conversation is about a co-worker's love life or Carrie Bradshaw's love life on Sex and the City, it isn't a conversation that belongs in the workplace. If someone brings it up, the best practice is to get the conversation back to work-related topics.

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Rule #8: Accentuate the positive, but on a professional level
Compliments on physical appearance must be handled with care. For example, he says, "That brooch you're wearing is interesting. Is it an antique?" She thinks, "What's he doing looking at my chest and letting me know that he was looking?" Play it safe and keep day-to-day pleasantries on the weather or other subjects that aren't emotionally charged.

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Rule #9: E-mail and voice-mail messages
There's a word for e-mail and voice-mail messages: evidence. People tend to view electronic communications as a substitute for personal conversation and treat them with the same informality. Remember that messages are recorded and stored most likely forever. Don't say anything in e-mail or voice mail that you wouldn't want to hear repeated in court.

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Rule #10: Rules of the road � ditto all the above
Supervisors traveling on work-related business represent the company even when en route, dining out, or staying overnight. Business-travel behavior must live up to the same standard as in-office behavior.

Bottom line

When you counsel your supervisors that they should be models of respectful behavior, they may say you're trying to take all the fun out of the office. Just remind them that nothing takes the joy out of the workplace like defending a harassment claim � however trivial or baseless. A culture of respect for others will pay off with more professional working relationships and greater productivity.

- Reprinted with permission from Indiana Employment Law Letter. Copyright
2005 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC, www.HRhero.com.

Gold rule

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LeadingEdition is an electronic newsletter for Purdue University supervisors.  It is produced and distributed by Purdue University Human Resources four times annually.  If you have questions, comments or suggestions relating to the newsletter, please call 49-41679 or email us.  Thank you.