TERRY PRONE: An equal opportunities massager or something much more sinister?

The massager should ask permission before he or any man puts a hand on someone of either sex.

An unsought neck massage in a workplace environment became a bone of contention recently, writes Terry Prone

Between unsought neck massages, sexist posters at gender-specific mini marathons, and judges postponing drink-driving bans on farmers to allow them the time to go to Lisdoonvarna and hook up with a woman who will drive them when they’re not allowed to drive themselves, it’s all very exciting, at the moment.

The unsought massage became a bone of contention in a company that consulted me recently about the issue. Not that they admitted the real issue when they rang up and asked me to do a workshop with them about Respect. What did they mean, Respect, I asked, emphasising the capital letter I just knew was in position at the front of the word.

Well, the human resources manager said, as if it explained everything, they wanted me to do a workshop about Respect in their Welsh division. That threw me. A silence fell while I tried to remember if the Welsh are known for disrespecting others. No references came to mind, and I wasn’t in a position where I could ask Dr Google about it.

No, no, they said, it was just they’d be able to get people from all their divisions to attend in Wales. This made no geographical sense whatever. Anyway, the HR woman went on, it was in Wales the incident happened. What incident? She hesitated and suggested we might explore the details of the incident in the workshop. That sound you hear was my heels digging in. Nope. Not going to walk into a group of people all of whom are privy to some appalling abuse perpetrated, I assumed, by one staff member on another, without some knowledge of the abuse.

She sighed and divulged.

“It was an unsought neck massage,” she said, in the tone of someone announcing a severe outbreak of murder, rape, and pillage on the second floor. Detail by detail, tooth by tooth, inch by inch, the facts emerged. Here they are.

The company had a divisional get-together on a particular date, wherein each of the divisional heads would present to the others and take questions about what was going well and what was going badly. You know yourself: The kind of session where the sound of tension-gritted teeth is beaten into second place by the sound of slurping up to the boss.

Anyway, they all did their presentations, sustained robust questioning, survived, and then gathered in a local hostelry for dinner, sans partners, about 20 of them. The company stumped up for a great meal with excellent accompanying wines and, as the coffee was being served, a couple of the male Divisional Heads present excused themselves for a nicotine fix. On their return, one of them came up behind a female Divisional Heads and began to provide her with a neck massage. Unsought.

At this point in the story, the HR manager ground to a halt. I should, in the interests of Respect, give her her proper title, which is Talent Manager. Talent Management is the new HR. That said, grinding to a halt at this point in the story is akin to quitting just as Little Red Riding Hood is opining that her granny is well-endowed in the dental department. What, I asked, did the female executive do?

Reluctantly, the Talent Manager resumed. The female Divisional Head apparently rose off the chair as if electrified, swept around to face the unsought massager, and told him she would be making a formal complaint about his inappropriate behaviour.

“Yeah,” I said. “What did she actually say?”

“That is precisely what she said,” the Talent Manager said.

She was sure of her ground, she added, because of course they had taken evidence from the participants the days following the incident.

“What did he say back?” I asked.

Long silence before the Talent Manager shared that the massager had called the female Divisional Head a pompous teetotal pain in the arse feminist. And yes, this female Divisional Head doesn’t drink, which may explain her fast access to corporate speak and knowledge of her rights.

I asked if the two central figures would participate in the planned workshop. No, was the answer. He had passed on. He hadn’t actually died, she hastened to clarify. He had resigned.

At this point, I showed what I believe to be admirable restraint by not eliciting what he had said when resigning, because, based on his response to his rejected massage, I figured it might have been a lively resignation and that whoever was in charge of his exit interview might have had an interesting encounter.

“The bottom line is that he is gone and his... his...” the Talent Manager clearly considered the word “victim” before changing the structure of the sentence and using the female Divisional Head’s title instead, on the way to saying that she wouldn’t be present either, because she was on stress leave.

The ensuing workshop — and identifying details have been changed to protect all involved —was fascinating. Most of the women interpreted what had been done to their colleague as assault. It would not happen to a man, one of them stated. Untrue, one of the guys said. The perpetrator was an equal opportunities massager. It was just his thing. He had worked in a gym and thought it was nice to help his colleagues get rid of tension in their necks, never mind their gender. And he’d had a few drinks and really she could’ve cut him a bit of slack. No, came the swift response from the distaff side of the house, he should ask permission before he or any man puts a hand on someone of either sex. One of the women, asked what she’d have done, announced she’d have thrown a glass of water over him. Oh, came the response from others. A mistake justifies violence?

Once broken into mixed working groups and given specific tasks, the workshop moved from high drama to practical solutions: A set of guidelines about what’s acceptable to do and what terminology is acceptable in corporate terms. I was surprised that everybody present agreed that to describe anyone as a teetotal feminist was an insult, since I would claim with some pride to be both, but a glossary of agreed terms was drawn up and all seemed to be well.

Until someone raised the issue of motivation. What, this participant asked, was behind the unsought neck massage? What message was the massager sending by his actions? What kind of underlying attitude had he, that found expression in unsought neck massaging?

At which point I observed that any employer pays people for what they do, not for what they think. People are paid for their behaviour, not their attitude, and the moment you impute attitude without evidence, you move into dangerous territory.

The judge in the drink-driving case, on the other hand, provided abundant evidence by his actions and statements of an urgent need for retraining in respect for women. Not to mention respect for the rules of the road.


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