Most people with office jobs have had to sit through some kind of seminar or video about sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior. You sign codes of conduct and a lot of companies boast about how great they are at treating everyone equally.
Here’s the reality. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve had that uncomfortable moment when someone higher up than you in the company crossed a line into flirting or more. And it gets even more complicated if it’s someone from a client, or someone your bosses would like to be a client. The human resources manual doesn’t account for the reality of he said/she said arguments or the threats, subtle or otherwise, about what can happen if you start speaking up. Ideally, it could all be handled in an official way without repercussions, but until that jubilee, here’s some of the situations I’ve been in and advice for getting out of them.
The Rich Bosses:
“Come into my office after hours and try out the new leather chair that I just bought,” said the former president of one of the largest banks in the world.
A creepy offer made creepier by the empty office around us at 8 p.m. And the offer of a massage from the 65-year-old with three kids older than I am didn’t help. This is one of the worst situations. Any complaints I made to him or to HR would be turned around by him and I would be made to look like I was trying to seduce him. I did what I could to avoid him, but in this situation, it’s vital to try and get the complaint to HR quietly, ideally to someone there who will trust your word even though he is higher in the company. Though a public calling-out would be great, his network and giant ego means you’d be just another cautionary tale.
At the time, I declined his offer and went home quietly. I did my best to permanently avoid him and although his creepy offers continued, they became less frequent. Even frequent still when the cohort of DC unpaid interns moved in for their summer break between college semesters.
If I could go back in time, I would send him an email along these lines: “I just wanted you to know that I felt uncomfortable by you asking me to try out your chair and I would appreciate if you spoke to me only about business matters.” I would explain how it made me feel rather than accusing him of being inappropriate and making him go on the defensive immediately. Most importantly, I would do what I can to make other women in the office aware of what they might have to deal with from him.
The Big Kahuna at the Networking Event:
I made an effort to corner the GP managing a billion dollar fund at a prestigious VC firm during a networking event once. I was thrilled to be able to talk to him about my own entrepreneurial experience and goals and he seemed genuinely interested, complimenting me on my accomplishments. He even said the magic words: “You really seem to be onto something, I’d love to invest.”
Seeing the title of this piece, you may suspect what came next, but I feel confident that even the most jaded businesswoman wouldn’t have expected to hear: “I would really love to have a threesome with you tonight; my wife doesn’t mind. I know a great, beautiful prostitute in town that we could call.”
I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was humiliated and told him curtly I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of talk and walked away. I knew that I might be walking away from any chance of getting his investment, but how could I possibly work with someone like that? I told his colleague what had happened. Unsurprised, he merely asked if I was okay and told me I there was no way to expose what a sleazy guy the GP was.
It’s hard to offer advice on this because you can’t really see it coming at an event. Awareness that it can and will happen, no matter what a girl wears or says, is the main thing. I count myself lucky he propositioned me straight away rather than plotting for a more vulnerable moment when he was heavily involved in my company.
This winter, right before the big blizzard, I’d gone for an interview for what sounded like my dream job, working at a mission-driven VC firm. That evening, my phone buzzed and I saw my potential supervisor, who’d gotten my number from resume, had texted: ”Up for Netflix and drinks before this blizzard kicks in?” Yes, subtle he was not. He suggested it was to talk more about the company and my role, while the CEO inked out my offer.
Saying no by text was easier than in person. I explained I had a boyfriend (which is such a terrible thing to need as an excuse, but there you go) and wasn’t interested. He kept texting and I’ve been ignoring them for months, telling mutual friends to give him the hint, but the situation curdled that snowy night and I feel anxious just thinking about it.
I later discovered the CEO was somewhat incompetent, so turning down the offer turned out to be a great decision. Still, I wish that I had sent a message to the CEO outlining exactly the reasons why I decided to pull out of our deal at the last moment. He’d put in a lot of time and effort to personally craft a role for me that would “make me happy” and I’d basically ghosted. I could have named my harasser and everything but at this point I can’t even stand to think about it.
The Powerful Politician:
I was recently invited by a friend to be her plus one at a U.S. Congressman’s birthday party. His home was an ode to his biography as a successful financier and Harvard graduate. I thought those were good signs until I crossed the threshold.
I felt like I’d fallen through time back into a college frat party. The elegant dress I’d spent so much time picking out looked frumpy and far too formal compared to the skintight outfits most of the other women were almost wearing. Of course, if any of the beer in the red Solo cups used in the beer pong games around me spilled onto my outfit, I’d fit right in. I had to duck behind a couple sloppily making out against the wall to avoid one particularly big splash.
I almost turned around and walked out at once and might have done had my friend not had a solid grip on my arm. OK, I thought, I’ll give the Congressman the benefit of the doubt and go meet him. Maybe it’s nothing to do with him and he’s as dismayed as I am right now. Yes, I am that kind of optimist.
We spotted him and walked over. As I extended my hand to shake, he gave me one of the most obvious up-and-down “I’m undressing you with my eyes” looks I’ve ever seen outside a bad movie. His lazy smile never touched his eyes, and his suggestion of a shot of vodka and that we “go somewhere and talk,” made my skin crawl.
I couldn’t work up the courage to slap his face like I wanted, and instead went to a makeshift bar. I almost dropped it when the “honorable” Congressman I’ve just met grabbed my ass, sleazy smile never moving.
Even my reticence has its limits. I walked out without another word. I’m glad I left, but I really wish I’d taken some pictures as evidence to send to the Washington Post. But of course they took everybody’s phone upon entrance, which in retrospect was a real warning sign.
It’s always great when you wake up to a LinkedIn message from the managing director of a billion-dollar investment bank telling you you’re “doing incredible things,” and offering to help.
If you’ve read this far, you know what’s coming. The great potential for a avenue to a job seemed great at first. I asked him if there was any possible openings I might be qualified for at his firm. His response:
“Come have dinner with me in NYC. You are a superstar”
Even that might have been alright if he hadn’t followed it up with a message through the encrypted WhatsApp message app reading only “9 p.m. Nobu.”
Suddenly not just a business meeting, very obviously a date. And picking WhatsApp, famed for its security, reveals even more. So I declined and decided not to go for a job there. He’s joined the growing collection of numbers I ignore or block, though I can’t say I wasn’t tempted by the offer of seeing the Rolling Stones in Cuba.
The Office Jim:
I realize some of these sound more like glamorous bragging than complaints about legitimate harassment, but I promise you, it feels just as awful when it’s a multimillionaire as it does when it’s a guy like Jim. He lingers by your desk, always making small talk and distracting you from your work. He’s full of compliments and offers to get you coffee. Then he starts asking about your after-work plans and wants to walk you home.
But it’s an endless grind and being nice doesn’t seem to work. In this case, simply telling him you don’t date co-workers is pretty effective. He may be annoying but his manners (or maybe just fear of rejection) mean he might accept a straight no even if he won’t take a hint. Just be ready to deal with potential malicious rumors he might spread in retaliation. Nice guys aren’t always nice in every way.
Junior Office Jimmy:
It’s Jim, but younger and even less self-aware. Just say no to his offer of $1 beer night at the college bar. Remember it’s okay to metaphorically flatten him if he says you look like a girl that knows how to party.
What to take away from these ridiculous anecdotes? First of all, try to fight the guilt of saying no. I have to tell myself every time something like this happens that it’s not my fault and they’re the ones pushing boundaries.
Those boundaries are important. If you don’t know your own, people will constantly push at them. Jobs are hard enough without these extra dimensions of politics, but winning or at least avoiding those political battles means knowing where your lines are. It sounds melodramatic, but every woman in business I know has had to deal with variations on these themes and they all have stories of ruined careers and marriages from things spiraling out of control.
Keep the high ground if you can. Forcing the business world to be the meritocracy it pretends to be isn’t something a single person can achieve, but if enough of us work at it, the culture can change.
Most important is to maintain your sense of integrity so that the next morning you wake up feeling good in your skin about who you are. Since not everything is black and white, remember to keep your eyes open and try to start reading in between the lines. Always remember that it is okay to say a flat-out “no”.
Oh and remember that when it comes to HR complaints, cameras and audio recorders are a woman’s best friend.