Too Sexy for This Job (Part Two)

In the last post, I wrote about how Gloria Steinem said women still have good reason to be angry. I’ve never considered myself angry and, frankly, I don’t know any other women I’d put in that category – at least not based on gender bias that is.

Still, there is one thing that gets my feathers ruffled at work and that’s blatant abuse of power. So it’s unfortunate that – of the 700+ executive women I surveyed recently – almost 2/3 had been hit on at work. Since this is an issue facing women of all ages, I thought it would be helpful to provide a few general guidelines with the caveat that every situation is different. (Translation: Your comfort level is ALWAYS the benchmark of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Do what is right for you.)

First, if your boss, client, or colleague makes a sexually suggestive comment (usually disguised as a joke), but you don’t feel uncomfortable… my advice is to let it go. You don’t have to laugh – in fact, it’s better for all of us if you didn’t – but it’s entirely possible the dirty jokester has no idea how offensive they’re being. If you occasionally (<—— key word alert) bump into this from peer-level colleagues, the best thing for YOU* to do is tolerate it. I know this isn’t fair and many will read “tolerate” as synonymous with “condone” but the sad truth is there are career repercussions for throwing down any bias or harassment cards. You really don’t want to kick that particular hornet’s nest until you have to. In the meantime, though, one of the WORST things you can do in the midst of sexual “humor” is jump in. For starters, your attempt at a joke could be misinterpreted by someone else but – more than that – if you do need to approach HR down the road, you don’t want your own potty mouth to be used against you. (*Note: If you’re the manager, you have an obligation to call out even the most casual sexism.)

Second, if your boss, client, or colleague makes a sexually suggestive comment and you DO feel uncomfortable…you’ve got to speak up. First, give the other person a bit of rope to wiggle out of the situation by saying something like,“This conversation has gone down the wrong road” coupled with a firm I’m-not-kidding look. If that doesn’t work, you should come right out and say that you’re uncomfortable and you’d like to keep it G-rated. If THAT doesn’t work, you may have no other choice but to go to your supervisor if you’re dealing with a client or colleague and ask to be reassigned.

However, if the culprit IS your boss and you’ve given ample warning – oy vey – now you need to head to HR. As mentioned, though, going to HR – particularly about your boss – is bound to open a big can of worms so you need to be prepared. For example, your boss will most likely say you’re overreacting (if not outright lying) and it’s a safe bet that the company will take his side since he outranks you. Therefore, you’ll need to have some proof in the form of written communication or a witness – although the latter will be tough since most of your colleagues won’t want to burn down their own barn. In addition, you’ll also need to be able to account for any behaviors of your own that could even remotely be considered suggestive. Did the boss come on to you while you were both drinking at a bar after hours? That doesn’t make his behavior right, but it certainly doesn’t help your case either. What were you wearing at the time? There are a few items we view as perfectly normal office attire – pencil skirts and tight, button-down shirts for example – that men find overtly sexy. Again, not saying it’s right, just calling out the facts because – while there’s a chance you may have a perfectly fair hearing with no long-term career damage – there’s also a chance that raising a stink could effectively derail your locomotive at work, and yes, that is something we should all be angry about.

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