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Tip: Leave the sex talk in the bedroom to save your career

This story was reported for San Diego News Network on September 15, 2009.

See original copy of story.

Spanking fetishes, eye-patch underwear and adulterous trysts may have no place in a work environment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a topic of conversation – just ask former California Assemblymember Mike Duvall (R-Yorba Linda).

The disgraced state legislator resigned after being caught at an Assembly hearing discussing his sex life in detail with colleague Jeff Miller (R-Corona). Duvall’s mishap raises important questions about workplace etiquette, what is appropriate office conversation, and how your behavior may affect your career.

“Sex talk is very common in the work place – very common,” said image consultant Jill Haney. “But, it’s really what our friends are for – we have to be able to separate our personal lives from our professional lives.”

It seems more now than ever, employees are struggling to segment the personal and professional sectors.

In a survey released in 2008 and conducted by the Novations Group, 42 percent of 500 employees surveyed, said they have “heard a sexually inappropriate comment.” The study also found:
– 35 percent said they heard a racial slur;
– 33 percent heard an ethnic slur;
– 27 percent heard an age-related ridicule;
– 23 percent heard ridicule about sexual orientation;
– and 10 percent heard ridicule about a person’s disability.

Haney says sex talk and other “inappropriate topics” have become more accepting over the years.

Duvall seemed to think it was acceptable. He went so far as to describe his mistress’ fetish for spanking.

“Anybody who’s in the public eye should not be having those kinds of inappropriate conversations,” said SDSU human resources professor Christine Probett. “They shouldn’t be stupid to talk about it at all.”

Probett made an example of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). , who screamed “You lie,” during President Obama’s health care address to a joint legislature; in this case, Wilson should have kept his mouth shut said Probett.

“His apologies didn’t make up for how incorrect it was,” Probett said. “It was very offensive and grossly inappropriate and will damage his career… This was probably one of the most public forums in the world.

Related Links: Calif. GOP lawmaker resigns from office over sex scandal | More careers | More lifestyle | More politics

“People are not being sensitive enough to other people’s perspectives of what is considered inappropriate or not.”

If you – like Assemblymember Jeff Miller – are uncomfortable with your colleague’s topic of conversation, Probett and Haney have tips for how you should handle it.

Probett: “If you’re in an awkward position, say, ‘Hey you know I’m not comfortable talking about this.’ If the conversation persists, be more firm. If needed, talk to your supervisor, manager or someone in the HR department. Do not be afraid to elevate it to get help.”

Haney: “Look at the person with a firm expression and say you do not appreciate his or her comments whatsoever. Or remove yourself from the situation and make a note to yourself not to be around him or her. Let it be known that it is creepy to you, to know that information.”

Duvall’s behavior also raises the issue of inter-office sexual relationships. Duvall reportedly had sex with female lobbyists, which could have created a conflict of interest.
Duvall may be an extreme example, considering the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists, who influence policy. Intimate relationships aren’t completely uncommon said Haney, who has worked with companies and their employees on etiquette for decades.

Haney said most companies will have policies in place on sexual relationships between coworkers – the most common is that if you decide to pursue a relationship, you must tell your boss.

“Most companies require, if you’re going to take it that intimate level, you have to go to the HR department [Human Resources] or your boss directly and make them aware of it,” Haney said. “If you don’t take that precaution, it will cross a line that’s considered inappropriate professional behavior. ”

In addition, if your boss discovers the relationship on his or her own, it can raise questions whether both parties involved can actually be “objective” when it comes to making important company decisions, Haney said.

“If you’re not being honest with your boss that means you’re losing sight of what’s important,” she said.

Using Duvall as an example, Haney elaborates on what his future holds because he wasn’t completely open with his boss – in this case, constituents.

“I think his political career is over and it should be,” Haney said.”When I heard his conversation, I just cringed with embarrassment for him. He’ll forever be known as that politician to Californians.”

Haney acknowledged that it would be a “long time” before Duvall would be able to redeem himself in the realm of politics.

“If he’s fortunate enough to ever get his career back on track, it’s going to take a long time,” she said.
Overall, the workplace has become a more casual environment, Haney said – but that doesn’t mean it should be.

“A casual work environment will cause casual conversation,” Haney said. “We must be really careful of what we share with our colleagues including small things like, sharing pictures of what we do in our free time.”

“If we want to be seen as a professional, then we need to act professional and be mindful of others.”

Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network.