Michael Cohen, attorney for Duane Morris L.L.P., in his keynote, "Harassment, Prevention, and Correction in 2022 and Beyond," engaged attendees in a two-hour presentation at the Rubber Roller Group conference where he reviewed appropriate and inappropriate workplace behavior.
He specifically avoided the over usage of terms like "harassment" and "discrimination," noting that the definitions of such are ever-changing—like the laws on which they are based.
By instead focusing on appropriate and inappropriate, he said, "you can get your arms around" the concepts and it can go a "long, long way toward avoiding things like harassment and discrimination."
Looking at several workplace scenarios, Cohen had participants rate them on a scale from 1 to 5, from least to most inappropriate.
While some scenarios were no-brainers when it came to egregious office behavior, others depended on missing context like tone of voice, patterns and whether an individual belonged to a protected class—like age, race, gender or gender identity, and socioeconomic status.
The gist, he said, is you never know how someone will respond to scenarios, so it's best to maintain a level of respect toward your employees or coworkers—even if you may not agree with them or their lifestyle.
"Just because you perceive something to be OK, that doesn't mean it is," he said.
If behaving appropriately at work for the sake of creating a comfortable and respectful work environment for your employees and coworkers isn't convincing enough, Cohen said the weight of legal fees might do the trick.
"I'll let you in on a little secret," he said. "Lawyers cost way too much money."
In "Tampa dollars," the cost of a simple, single-plaintiff case—assuming the litigators "get along well" and there's no appeal—could be upward of $500,000, "easy," he said.
"Most people don't have half a million bucks lying around to act like a jackass at work," he added.
People who feel respected won't bring claims against you, Cohen said. But people who feel wronged, humiliated or uncomfortable just might.
But as laws change and societal expectations and perceptions shift over the years, how can businesses be expected to keep up?
"Adapt or die," Cohen said. "If you don't get on board and continue to learn and evolve and consume the content as much as you can, you will render yourself a relic."