So much for compliments

Posted: Jul 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Work has always been a good place to find love. It's where Bogie met Bacall. It's where I met my wife -- she worked for "Good Morning America." Since we spend so much time at work, we often get to know one another better than we do in settings specially designed to help us find romance.

 But in an effort to prevent discomfort and discrimination, America's rule makers are piling law upon love-crushing law, striving to sterilize the workplace.

 The latest headline is from California, where this month, the state Supreme Court decided that if you have an affair with your boss, your colleagues can sue.

 The boss in the case, a state prison warden, bent rules and played favorites outrageously to help a junior employee with whom he was having an affair; he had affairs with three different subordinates and once said he "should have chosen" one of the plaintiffs. Should he have been fired? Probably.

 But in letting workers who didn't have an affair with the warden sue the state, the California Supreme Court held that favoring the person you love can count as sexually harassing everyone else. Sexual harassment law is no longer limited to protecting women from unwanted advances; in California, it now protects women from having their colleagues respond to wanted ones.

 Taking its cue from a statement Clarence Thomas approved when he led the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the court said: "widespread sexual favoritism may create a hostile work environment . . . by sending the demeaning message that managers view female employees as 'sexual playthings'" or that "'the way for women to get ahead in the workplace is by engaging in sexual conduct.'"

 I see the logic, but consider where it leads. In sexual harassment law, "messages" are not judged by the intent of the people sending them -- they're judged by how others respond. The offended get to decide which speech is offensive.

 "What is inappropriate really exists only through the eyes of the person experiencing it," said Olivet Jones, a $2,000-per-day consultant who conducted a workplace seminar on sexual harassment ABC News videotaped.

 I found it frightening. "So the person who hears it gets to determine if it's offensive?" I asked. "Even if your intention is good?"

 "It doesn't matter, John. If I shoot you dead," she asked, "do you care that I didn't mean to?"

 Shooting equals speaking? There's a difference between bullets and words.

 "No," Jones says. "They have the same power."

 That's a dangerous concept. In a free society, we are supposed to be able to say whatever (or nearly whatever) we want.

 But since the law says that words can create a harassing "hostile environment," some employers are so afraid of being sued that they keep their own rules even more restrictive than the law.

 Some forbid dating in the office altogether, a policy that will no doubt become more popular now that the California Supreme Court says it can lead to lawsuits from colleagues who aren't involved. An overreaction to sexual harassment law? That's what happens. Given what lawsuits cost, managers must take desperate measures. If workers lose freedom of speech, so what? If they miss out on relationships that could have added joy to their lives, who cares? Better safe than sorry.

 America is supposed to be a land of self-reliant, hardy individualists who cherish their freedom. But sexual harassment law treats women as so weak and vulnerable that not only can they not handle rude and boorish insults, they can't even handle gallant compliments. At the "harassment seminar," Jones told us we must make sure we do not engage in even the most basic kinds of friendly, human interaction. "Don't touch a co-worker on the shoulder. And be careful of compliments!"

  "Are you becoming a bland person?" said Jones? "Yes, you are."

 Everyone must become bland? I don't want to! I want to joke and flirt. One seminar participant complained Jones' rules would make the workplace "cold, unhealthy, less fun." I agree. Yet by seminar's end, Jones had convinced most participants that workplace speech should be censored.

 How easily we give up our freedoms.