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.
It became one of the most memorable moments of the president’s whirlwind trip to Paris to meet with recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron and celebrate Bastille Day in France last week. On Twitter, some commentators saw Trump’s remarks to Brigitte Macron as part of a pattern of lewd comments Trump previously made about — and to — women. (He subsequently apologized for the comments, which were dismissed by his wife Melania as locker room “boy talk”):
When Trump said, “You’re in such good shape,” Mrs.Macron should have said, “You’re not.”
— Harold Itzkowitz (@HaroldItz) July 14, 2017
The NY Times attacked Trump for telling Brigitte Macron she was in “good shape”. My God. What a monster. Who’s he gonna compliment next?
— Oliver Hackett (@OliverHackett) July 14, 2017
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.
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On the subject of being friendly, some people confuse the faces on their company’s website with those on dating site. “When are you and I going to have dinner?” a publisher asked Chris, a New York-based advertising executive, when she walked into her magazine’s office party. “His wife was standing not more than two feet away,” she recalls. This is the kind of clumsy pass a female employee may have endured on Madison Avenue in 1960. He didn’t want to discuss circulation.
Here are 10 less obvious things NOT to say to colleagues or employees:
‘Do you and your wife go to church?’
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.
‘You’re having a ‘blonde’ moment!’
“It’s 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.”
‘Are you going to have more kids?’
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 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, as they fear their job will be in jeopardy. Similarly, “Do you have kids” has long been used as code for determining an employee’s sexuality, experts say.
‘You’re only taking the elevator one floor?’
David, a New York-based marketing executive, said he was once asked this question by a colleague. What his colleague didn’t know: He had a neurological disorder that attacked his body’s peripheral nervous system that prevented him from walking up even one flight of stairs. Health issues are often unseen. “There are all sorts of disabilities and illnesses that are invisible to people,” he says. An employee could have anything from a bad joints to circulation problems or even heart disease.
‘You seem down — are you depressed?’
A better question if you are concerned about a co-worker: “What can I do to help?” The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on mental health, which includes depression, and prevents companies asking applicants about their mental health. It’s an increasingly important issue in the workplace: More than 41 million Americans experience some type of mental illness in any given year, according to the latest government data.
‘You’re lucky you don’t want a family’
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.
‘Here’s some free dating advice…’
Sexual harassment can also be something wildly inappropriate. Assume your co-workers don’t want advice on their personal life, unless they ask for it, and even then tread very carefully if they do. Abby, who works in a college admissions department, once had a director who was liable to say just about anything. ‘She once told me to be careful about dating married men, because she dated a married man who gave her syphilis.’ I replied, ‘Thanks for the tip,’ ran out of her office and called my mom.”
‘You’re just being a fuddy duddy’
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.
‘What are you? I can’t figure you out’
Sorcha Loughrey, an Irish makeup artist with a a pulp-fiction 1950s Hollywood look adapted for the social media age, has dealt with many off comments. A former department store manager where she worked asked her, “What exactly are you? I can’t figure you out. I saw your husband once, he is strange, too.” Her husband has a grey handlebar mustache and a dapper mid-20th Century style. In another context, however, a person’s dress could also be religious or cultural attire.
‘Should you really be eating that?’
Loughrey attributes such thoughtless comments to a lack of both managerial training and emotional intelligence. Such remarks, she says, can be damaging to a young person’s confidence, especially early in a career. She, however, is not so easily flummoxed. Case in point: Her former department store manager approached her one day in the company’s cafeteria and said, “Sorcha! Ice-cream? What about your figure?’” She replied, “I’ve had a busy day. It’s either ice-cream or gin.’”