It’s a Scary Time for Men, It’s a Scary Time for Women

If I didn’t lose you with the title, then you’re open-minded, and I appreciate that. I certainly know it’s a scary time for women—the past year has made it very clear that sexual harassment and assault has gone under-reported and unresolved in many workplaces. And I can empathize with well-intentioned men who are watching the swirl and freaking out a little. The fast-moving sea change of #MeToo has left many men unsure of what’s OK and what’s not OK in the workplace, and that’s an uncomfortable place to be.

What if we could get more certainty around what’s appropriate and inappropriate in the workplace? What if women and men could collectively participate in candid conversations on that topic without finger pointing, yelling or walking out of the room?

We can. There are a few easy but little-used tips that can instantly improve our understanding and therefore make our conversations more productive. For example, focusing on the behavior rather than the person is helpful. Classifying behavior along a spectrum is also useful so that we don’t conflate sexual assault with a misguided comment. We created a tool called The Workplace Color Spectrum® to help accomplish this and more.

Essentially, the Workplace Color Spectrum® is a behavior rating system. It starts with Green to describe positive and productive interactions. Next is Yellow, which are behaviors that are stressful, irritating or demotivating to others. Orange is used to describe behavior that is disrespectful, demoralizing and alienating. Red behavior is toxic, destructive, and unlawful when focuses on protected characteristics like race, sex, and disability.

The next time the sales team manager makes a comment about how much he’d love to hook up with that hot client at the conference, perhaps the word Orange will pop into your mind.

As you start to think about it, there are lots of things, from comments to jokes to that cringey shoulder massage that sit somewhere on a behavior scale.

Workplace Perspectives Differ

Everyone comes to the workplace with a different perspective. What you think is OK is very much based upon the types of behaviors you saw growing up, and how you talk with your circle of friends when you’re hanging out. If you grew up watching Saturday Night Live and your parents swore a lot, you’re probably pretty chill when something a little racy comes up at work. If you grew up a little sheltered and your family was prim and proper, it might be an absolute shocker. So, different people may very well have a different impression of where something falls on the Workplace Color Spectrum.

Likewise, workplaces can differ. Talking about breasts at work is likely to be Green (positive and productive) if you work at Victoria’s Secret or the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. However, if you’re in a financial services firm, where there’s about zero reasons to be talking about breasts at work, it’s going to be Orange (demoralizing and alienating).

Off-color comments and jokes are made all the time in the workplace. Importantly, it’s not all about whether that racy comment is “OK” or not. When we’re talking about relationships at work, it’s all about how the comment affects others. (When someone makes a legal claim, that assessment becomes part of the investigation.)

For the person who wasn’t offended, it probably makes them feel great. They’re a part of the community, you all had a good laugh, these are your people, you’d love to work on a big project together.

For the person who was offended, it’s alienating. You feel uncomfortable, in the moment AND long afterward. You may avoid casual conversations, group outings, and projects or opportunities where you’d have to work closely with someone who thinks that way. You just don’t want to be subjected to it over and over. It’s de-energizing.

Orange behavior is detrimental in the workplace because it creates an uneven playing field, where the great talent opts out of the groups where they could make the greatest contribution. It sucks the energy out of people who could and would contribute more if they felt they were in a more inclusive workplace.

For the Behavior Rating Skeptics

Skeptical that a behavior rating scale will make a difference? I was too, until we started using this system real-time.

Surely, you can think of situations you’ve experienced or observed where orange behavior has been prevalent. If you really thought about it, perhaps you could see how it led to lost opportunities for some who felt excluded.

But, still, you say, how do you KNOW what’s orange or what’s not? Roll it out and find out for yourself. Here’s the way we see it used across our client base (and how we use it ourselves):

  1. Introduce your colleagues to the Workplace Color Spectrum®.
    Emtrain Workplace Color Spectrum
    (Download and print the Workplace Color Spectrum® Poster)
  2. Encourage people to use the language. For managers, it can be fun to announce that you aspire to be Green all week, but acknowledge that sometimes you might go Yellow or even Orange–and people should let you know if you do. By putting yourself out there, you encourage open communication, model positive interactions, and help grow a culture of inclusion.
  3. Remember to call out behaviors using the spectrum language yourself, when in meetings or hanging out with colleagues. “I think we all did a pretty good job of being green in this sales meeting.” “I thought we went a little yellow there…”

Ultimately, there’s no better way to know if someone thinks a comment is Orange than for them to yell out “Orange!” right as you’re saying it. This immediate feedback is incredibly helpful, and particularly important: because Orange behavior can easily escalate to Red if it goes unchecked. But when sunshined, Orange behavior can just as easily be de-escalated to Yellow or Green.

In our organization, we use the spectrum often. It’s not uncommon for a few of us to yell out a color at the same time. And then, sometimes, we have a friendly debate. “No, I think that was yellow,” “Oh, that was totally orange to me…” and then we move on. Again, the actual rating doesn’t matter as much as:

  • Stopping the offending action or comment
  • Rating a behavior, not attacking the person who did it
  • Everyone having a voice and an opinion, which is empowering and inclusive
  • Understanding that opinions will vary and learning the temperature of your workgroup.
  • Recalibrating your future comments.

Some of you are like, “oh no, you’re sucking all the fun out of the workplace.” Yup, for you I am. You’re going to have to bring it down a notch. Because the harm you’re doing to others through your more aggressive humor isn’t OK.

Some of you are saying “if this really works it could make a pretty big difference in my daily dilemma.” Yup, it can. Finding your voice and a new way to use it is empowering.

We’re In It for the Workplace

It’s a scary time for men and it’s a scary time for women and that means we need to be forthright in communicating what’s OK and what’s not OK in the workplace. By rating behavior and finding a fun and easy way to call out the bad stuff, you’ll develop a better rapport amongst your colleagues, and get the workplace back to being positive and productive.

For more information about the Workplace Color Spectrum® and how we help create healthier workplace cultures through courses and resources, please contact us

#MeTooworkplace color spectrum
Laraine McKinnon
Talent and Culture Strategist Women's Advocate Former Managing Director at BlackRock
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