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Poll: Where Americans Draw Lines On Workplace Behavior


People are reconsidering what behaviors are OK in the workplace and which are inappropriate with the Me Too movement taking hold over the last few months. NPR joined up with Ipsos to poll Americans on where they draw the line and what they've experienced at work. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been looking at the results. She joins us now. Hi, Danielle.


MCCAMMON: So there's been a lot of talk about gray areas in the midst of the Me Too movement. What's OK, what's not OK, what's in between?


MCCAMMON: Give me a sense of what this poll found.

KURTZLEBEN: So, we asked people about a dozen workplace behaviors, you know, from unwanted touching to just asking about a co-worker's social life. And on a lot of these, a majority of people thought that those behaviors were inappropriate on balance. The behaviors that people thought were the most inappropriate were deliberate touching but also some things we don't hear about in this Me Too cultural moment right now, things like gossiping or speculating about your co-worker's sexual preference. And meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, what the fewest people thought was inappropriate in all of the things that we asked was a co-worker asking a co-worker of equal rank out on a date. But even then, 30 percent of people said that was inappropriate.

MCCAMMON: So how pervasive did people think that these kinds of behaviors are at work?

KURTZLEBEN: On a lot of these, quite pervasive. You know, we asked people if they had seen these things happen in the workplace and even some things that people saw as very inappropriate like telling sexual stories or jokes or calling an adult female in the workplace babe or sweetie or, you know, some iteration of that. A majority of people said they had seen those things at work even though around 8 or 9 in 10 people thought those things were inappropriate. Likewise, about half of people have seen their co-worker discussing each other's sexual preferences or history. And about a third say they have seen deliberate touching or leaning or cornering or something to that effect.

But on a lot of these behaviors where there's near consensus that these things are inappropriate and where you have quite a few people saying, yeah, I've seen this happening, relatively few people - 1 in 10 or fewer - say they have actually done these things themselves. So, for example, more than half of people have seen someone telling a sexual joke or story at work. Fifteen percent of people say they have done that themselves.

MCCAMMON: It also seems like, especially in this moment, that it would be kind of hard to admit to a pollster that you've done any of these things. Am I right?

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah. And, you know, that is a concern in a poll like this, so we did this poll online. That should mitigate some of that. But aside from that, you know, there are a few other things to think about with this poll. First is that this is the first time that we have polled on these questions with Ipsos. We do not have anything else to compare this to. This is just a snapshot. So we don't know if this is a change from people's behaviors before the Me Too movement.

One other really big question mark with these questions is that the behaviors we asked people about, some of them are pretty ambiguous. And that's intentionally ambiguous, right? Because one of the big challenges people are confronting in their workplaces right now is those gray areas you started out asking me about. Take commenting on a co-worker's appearance, for example. Saying to a co-worker, hey, that's a cool dress you're wearing, that can be perceived as a very different thing from saying that dress looks great on you.


KURTZLEBEN: Two different things you could say about a co-worker's appearance and two very different ways to perceive that.

MCCAMMON: Well, thanks, Danielle. Danielle Kurtzleben is a politics reporter with NPR. Good to have you here.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.