The president told the French President’s wife: ‘You’re in such good shape’
President Donald Trump might have been trying to pay a compliment when he told French First Lady Brigitte Macron, “You’re in such good shape. She’s in such good physical shape. Beautiful.” But it was seen as an objectification of the French President’s wife by many people on social media. The president made his remark while on the job, and had he made that comment in a more typical workplace, experts say he would likely have been marched up to the human resources department.
There’s a workplace lesson therein no matter the level of professional stature, experts say. “The motive of the person matters little, what matters is the conduct,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and chief executive officer of the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit women’s advocacy group in Washington, D.C. An employer has to respond to any allegations of misconduct or inappropriate behavior to ensure the workplace is one where everyone can thrive, she said.
Whether it’s a man or a woman, think carefully before complimenting someone on their physique, said Denise Dudley, author of “Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted.” Telling someone they’re “beautiful” is a no-no. Friendly co-workers may exchange compliments about their clothes and physical appearance, but comments about a person’s looks or weight or figure are exactly the kind of thing that are often cited in sexual harassment lawsuits.
Some topics, like a person’s religion, sexuality and marital status, are best avoided in the workplace. A colleague may not want to be invited to church on Sunday and may have their own place of worship and/or may be a humanist or an atheist. If in doubt, leave it out, Dudley said. Don’t always assume a man is married to a woman or a woman is married to a man, she said. Swap “wife” and “husband” for “significant other” or “partner,” she added.
“It just a joke” just doesn’t cut it. “There are a number of cases which focus on the off-handed comments made in the workplace,” Robert Gregg, a lawyer with Boardman & Clark in Madison, Wis., writes on his blog. “These comments have, in fact, come back as evidence of discriminatory intent or harassment by a manager. Almost all harassers in such cases claim that they were ‘just joking.’” Gregg cites a manager who made jokes like “you’re being a blonde again.”
Even if this exchange happened between a female manager and her direct report, it could be interpreted as a judgment on taking maternity leave. For some people, that might sound like being overly cautious, but perhaps not when seen in a larger context. Nearly two-thirds of American workers don’t take paid paternity leave, research shows. Some mothers-to-be or those trying to get pregnant may get nervous their job will be in jeopardy.
Similarly, it’s not appropriate to assume that a colleague — a gay man or woman, or even a single or married man or woman without children — is happy not to raise a family. An estimated 37% of LGBT-identified adults have had a child at some time in their lives and some 6 million American children and adults have an LGBT parent, according to studies by the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California.
Age discrimination is rife in the workplace, studies show, and using terms like “an old fuddy duddy,” “slow,” “sluggish” and “not culturally fit” don’t help, as happened in this 2010 case in Wisconsin when a 50-something manager who was terminated by an executive 20 years younger who had used these phrases. Even casual or “stray” remarks made by an employee who was not a hiring manager, “may be used to bolster claims of discrimination,” according to the law firm Reed Smith.