Hot and steamy is generally a topic left for the shower, and not for discussion in the office. Generally, most companies don't have too big of a problem with this, but with Fifty Shades of Grey raking in $80 million at the box office over the Valentine's Day weekend, you might have to worry about it.

It's just a movie, and we always discuss movies at work. So what makes this one different? Well, some groups question its R rating, saying it should have received the stronger NC-17 rating since it has such strong and extreme sexual content. This means that discussions about the actual movie, and not just "Yeah, I saw it. It was OK," can open up your company to sexual harassment claims.

Yes, over a movie.

Sexual harassment law isn't always straightforward. There's a bunch of ways sexual harassment can happen. You can have the stereotypical lecherous boss who demands sexual favors in return for job security, or the supervisor who reaches out and touches you inappropriately. But you can also have what's called a hostile work environment.

The legal boilerplate language defining hostile work environments is generally something like this:" 

"To establish a claim of hostile work environment, the workplace [must be] permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment ... [I]n order to be actionable ... a sexually objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively offensive, one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, and one that the victim in fact did perceive to be so.... [W]hether an environment is sufficiently hostile or abusive [is determined] by looking at all the circumstances ..."

How can discussing a movie turn your workplace into a hostile work environment? Well, if you start to get into details, you're likely to have someone who is offended. You can't just assume that because Jane doesn't speak up that she's not offended. And if the discussions go on long enough and it's deemed an acceptable topic in the workplace, it's possible that it could create an environment where sexual discussion starts to become the norm, and that could mean a reasonable person would find it hostile. That, plus your offended employee, is what it will take.

Now, does this mean you should go into full on panic mode and ban all mention of the movie? Probably not. Most discussions are going to be short lived, which won't rise to the occasion of "sufficiently severe or pervasive." But you do want to nip such conversations in the bud.

A quick reminder to keep conversation clean can go a long way toward reminding people that sexual discussions--whether real or fictional--should not have a home in the office. When you hear people talking, quip, "Hey, remember, this is a PG office."

If someone complains? Take it absolutely seriously. Sexual harassment law also allows for companies to remedy the situation outside the costly courtroom. So, if Jane says, "Bill and Katie and Horace have all been discussing this movie in great detail, and it's making me feel very uncomfortable," you can tell Bill, Katie, and Horace to knock it off. If they do and that's the end of it, you're probably good. If, however, you say, "Oh, Jane, it's just a movie!" and the three movie fans continue their discussions, they can create an environment where Jane feels excluded, and is no longer able to do her work properly.

As a general rule, you should strive for the PG-level workplace. PG-13 at the most. Anything stronger should be kept for your personal life, completely outside the office.

Published on: Feb 5, 2015
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