Toxic Culture: How Shall the Punishment Fit the Crime?

By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Dr. Chris Kilmartin

In a previous article, we discussed that sexism is a form of prejudice, just as racism is.  In the last article, we discussed Prevention of Sexual Harassment at work: What’s OK, What’s Not OK? We listed workplace behavior that is acceptable, and behavior that crosses the line. However, the line is confusing, and several readers wrote to say the guidelines are unclear and therefore unfair to those who would like to do the right thing. Their comments follow.

 “OK! I get there are rules that can guide workplace behavior. But, it is mystifying to me about the gradation of severity of inappropriate actions and their consequences. So, how is it calculated among President Bush Sr.’s pat on the fanny, Senator Franken forcing non-wanted kisses on colleagues, and Weinstein exposing himself to non-consenting women? These actions simply don’t equate to me in terms of intensity, and therefore in equal punishment. Solutions?”

“I admit I am a fan of Senator Franken, and I still think he got a raw deal having to resign as compared to the really egregious behavior by many of the other men. Isn’t there a penance that people can do? Everyone should have the opportunity to learn and change.”

In response to these comments, it is often challenging to decide where the line is drawn on different types of behavior.

Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light

To address this issue, the U.S. Navy in 1993 defined sexual harassment using colors to group acceptable and non-acceptable conduct by using an analogy to a “Traffic Light.” The Navy uses a different framework now, but this analogy works for the lay person.  

“Red Light” behavior simply must not occur in the workplace at all; should never happen in the workplace. Such behavior that is always unacceptable includes sexually explicit visual displays, unwanted touching of a clearly sexual nature, or a supervisor basing job-related actions on an employee’s agreement to provide sexual favors.  

“Yellow Light” means cautionThis behavior is questionable in the workplace and should be monitored very carefully. This is behavior that involves race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information or medical information, or sexual orientation. Examples include gender-related jokes, sexist comments or remarks, physical behavior, or visual displays that involve sexual innuendo.  

“Green Light” behavior is appropriate and/or acceptable in the workplace and is often necessary to the job. This behavior may build trust and teamwork in the workplace rather than undermining trust and teamwork.

Remember Dave, Miquel, and Fred In Men as Allies, and how they learned to discuss respect and inclusion issues, and then confront each other when differences occurred? Assume these men are now participating in a Sexual Harassment Prevention training session, and are assigned to the same group. A classroom is set up in a large conference room and the facilitator faces the class. Displayed on a screen facing the group are explanations of Red, Yellow, or Green Light Behavior. The session is in progress, and the facilitator recites the following example.

“In your group, decide among yourselves whether the following situations are Red, Yellow,  or Green light conduct.”

1. An employee uses the company email to send some jokes to other employees and to friends outside the office. The jokes are about sex.

Dave, “Oh man, this is too obvious.Of course, you can’t use the email to tell a joke.The Company pays for the Internet so it should be only for company business.”

“Wait a minute,” interjects Fred.“So, we could tell a sex joke person to person”?

“Well”, says Miquel, “any inappropriate joke, whether in person or through email, should be off limits. Time for a decision: Red, Yellow, or Green Light”

“Ok,” says Fred, “not a piece of cake. But, Red Light?”

“Red Light,” the other two agree.

What would you say? A. Green Light? B. Yellow Light? C. Red Light?

2. Bill puts up a picture on the bulletin board of Miss Universe in her bikini bathing suit with the head of Jane, an Employee in the office, very carefully and artfully superimposed on the body of Miss Universe. 

Miquel begins, “This is inappropriate, I think. Was Jane asked if she minds her head being superimposed on a Miss Universe body”?  

“Actually, my take is that since the bathing suit photo doesn’t have anything to do with our job, I agree this is inappropriate,” says Fred.

“Well, she looks really good in that photo,” says Dave. “I wonder what Jane thinks?  Isn’t this the point?  The person has to agree and it is ok”?

“Shall we vote?” asks Miquel. “Two yellow, one green,” says Fred. 

What would you say? A. Green Light? B. Yellow Light? C. Red Light?

3.  A male supervisor compliments a female member of his staff on her new hair style by saying, “Mary, I like what you’ve done with your hair style. It looks very nice!”  

“Softball…,” exclaims Dave. “We learned last week compliments are OK! Don’t need to vote. Green Light. Everybody agree?”  

“He,y be careful. Would you ever say that to a guy, and if not, isn’t that a sexual innuendo?” suggests Miquel.

“Oh, OK, when you put it this way I can see this is Yellow light. Everybody agree?” asks Dave.  Followed by high fives.

What would you say? A. Green Light? B. Yellow Light? C. Red Light?

4.  At an office party, a female supervisor suggests to a male subordinate that they leave and get a bottle of Champagne and go to a nearby hotel.

“Here we go again!” says Dave. “The blasted consent issue once more.”

“Sounds like this is Green Light to me,” Miguel insists. 

“All right, two consenting adults, even if one is a supervisor, going to a hotel with a bottle of Champagne, should be fine?” questions Fred.

“I think so, but guys, she’s his boss and even if he goes along with it, he might just be caving into the pressure,” adds Dave.  

Miquel raises his eyebrow. “Dave, you are usually odd man out on these scenarios. But you gotta’ agree with us on this one; look he’s a guy and a single guy at that, so why not, what’s wrong with you, man?”

“Ok Ok, I cave…. Green Light,” shouts Dave. Fred and Miquel knuckle bump.

What would you say? A. Green Light? B. Yellow Light? C. Red Light?

The facilitator wraps up. To emphasize, “Red Light” behavior will result in serious disciplinary action, up to and including separation from employment. If your behavior is “Yellow Light,” very often, like the traffic light situation, you can quickly cross into “Red Light” behavior. Thus, frequent or persistent jokes or comments that are “Yellow Light” can become “Red Light.” When you are engaged in “Yellow Light” behavior and someone asks that you refrain from such behavior in their presence, it is extremely important that you respond to that request positively. Green Light – Behavior that is appropriate in the workplace.

Answers: How many did you get correct?

1. Q.  Sending sex jokes through the Internet. The group decides Red Light.

A. C. Sharing sex jokes in the workplace, whether by email or verbally is Red Light as it is considered offensive and is inappropriate conduct. Although, if everyone wants to hear them and nobody can overhear them, it’s not sexual harassment which has to be unwelcome. It is, however, quite unprofessional and has no place at work for that reason.

2. Q. Employee face superimposed on Miss Universe. The group was divided, “Two yellow, one green.”

A. C.  Red Light, as this behavior is considered offensive and/or intimidating; even if Jane does not object; also note Dave’s comment was itself inappropriate.

3. Q. Male supervisor complimenting female subordinate on new hair style. The group agreed it was Green Light. 

A. B. Yellow light. Yes, the “hair style” comment might be fine, but context is important – was it accompanied by body language or behavior that suggest it wasn’t simply an innocent compliment?  If it’s debatable, it could be Green Light, or Yellow Light.

4. Q. Female supervisor suggests to male subordinate to get champagne and go to a hotel. The group decided Red Light.

A. C. This is Quid Pro Quo, definitely Red Light.


We welcome your thoughts and comments.  Each one contributes to the conversation which is the key to understanding and culture change.  Please email and we may publish your comment. Thanks!

The following is based on Kilmartin, C. T. (2017).  Male allies to women.  In J. Schwarz (Ed.), Counseling women across the lifespan: Empowerment, advocacy, and intervention.  New York: Springer. 

About KHubbard LRevo-Cohen GCrider Chris Kilmartin Maria Morukian (34 Articles)
Since 1984, the founders of NewPoint Strategies, Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, have built a strong reputation for delivering extremely effective prevention training in high-risk issues such as sexual harassment/assault. Contributing Author and Lead Consultant, Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Psychology from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert in Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention, specifically Male Violence Against Women, Gwen Crider, a diversity and inclusion strategist with over 20 years of leadership experience in non-profit and private sector organizations, and Maria Morukian is an internationally recognized diversity expert