“Frat boy” comments in the workplace

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Q:  I work for a small, but growing company in Cambridge.  The company started in a small apartment in Somerville and most of us were hired during the pandemic.  The place is very casual.  The CEO is young and immature.  He makes “frat boy” comments all the time and throws a football around the office.  You get the picture.

On Fridays, or when we land a big client, all hell breaks loose.  The CEO has food brought in and beer delivered.  Of course, everyone wants free dinner, so most of us stay for the dinner.  We are chastised if we want to leave after dinner and that is when the “bro talk” starts and people start to get really drunk.

Honestly, I may ask to work from home on Fridays to avoid this stuff.  It doesn’t portray our company in a professional way.  We look immature and feels like an extension of college some times.

We have been told by “boy wonder” that these events are more important than ever, since so many of us were hired during the pandemic.  If we speak up, then we are on “the outs” because we are “not fun” and don’t want to be part of building the culture.

A: I understand your concern.  Alcohol, a lax environment and sometimes inexperienced leadership can contribute to a troublesome situation.  Your concern is valid, especially in today’s work environment.  Inappropriate conduct is real, and often there are signs prior to the behavior crossing the line.  In my experience, alcohol often contributes to an environment where disrespectful behaviors occur.

You are right to be worried.  Your company is providing the space and picking up the bill for this Friday evening gathering.  In most situations, employees would still understand that professional conduct is required.  However, alcohol often clouds judgement.

Today, the lines between our work lives and our personal lives are blurred.  Employees work remotely.  They connect to each other on social media.  Most employers still expect employees to behave in a professional and respectful manner, whether sharing a pizza, or working on a project together.

The law does not limit where the harassment occurs.  Harassment can occur outside of normal work hours.  If this conduct occurs within the building, that is problematic.  Courts have consistently found employers liable for sexual harassment if the behavior (or some of the behavior) occurred during business travel or other work-related events.  Harassment can also occur electronically, via texts, email or other messaging apps.

The behavior you are describing sounds like it could be the basis for a hostile work environment claim, depending upon what is meant by “frat boy” comments.  In short, a hostile work environment is created when there is unwelcome conduct, of a sexual nature, while makes others feel humiliated or offended.  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) may consider a number of factors when assessing whether the conduct outside the workplace constitutes sexual harassment for which an employer is liable:

  • whether the event at which the conduct occurred is linked to the workplace in any way, such as at an employer-sponsored function;
  • whether the conduct occurred during work hours;
  • the severity of the conduct;
  • the work relationship of the complainant and alleged harasser, which includes whether the alleged harasser is a supervisor and whether the alleged harasser and complainant come into contact with one another on the job;
  • whether the conduct adversely affected the terms and conditions of the complainant’s employment or impacted the complainant’s work environment.

Some of the examples you shared are examples of behavior which could be identified as harassing behavior.  Jokes and discussing one’s own sexual activities are two examples often outlined in harassment policies, as examples of harassing behavior.

If you have a person who is responsible for the Human Resources function, you should discuss your concerns with this person.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.