That’s the refrain from a number of my female (and some male) colleagues and friends who reluctantly admit a time when they were the target of unwanted and inappropriate attention from someone. These are accomplished, influential people who found themselves in a situation where a more powerful person demanded undeserved, intimate fulfillment. The demands may have come by way of improper or sexually themed text messages, a “gentle” but suggestive touch on the arm, a lewd remark at the bar, an expectation to continue a business conversation over drinks and dinner, an out of town meeting scheduled in a hotel suite where suddenly everyone else leaves the room, and the list goes on.
The common denominator is that a situationally more powerful person assumes the right to gain personal gratification from a less powerful one. The more powerful person tries to take advantage of the less powerful person’s desires to:
- Get or keep a job or promotion.
- Sign a deal or gain a new customer.
- Gain investment dollars.
- Benefit from their influence and favor.
- Accomplish an important project or build valuable relationships.
No matter our role or responsibilities, we may still find ourselves in such a position where we must be clear in advance what we’re not willing to do to accomplish those goals. Here are options for empowerment:
Anger, shame, fear and anxiety are but a few of the emotions that flood our minds once we find ourselves in these situations. We rehearse how we might have handled it better or differently. We want to take action to regain our power but have to consider the consequences of that as well. Will we be believed or blamed? Often there’s no witnesses or no one to tell who can or will hold that person accountable. At other times, we worry that addressing the perpetrator can create negative consequences for us as the victim.
While discussion of these topics is now more open than ever, and we see many more public examples of companies separating leaders who have engaged in it, the waters are still murky. When confronted with accusations of misbehavior, organizations weigh stated policies and values against the loss of key leaders, negative stakeholder reactions and financial repercussions. Business-to-business relationships are now at risk based on employees stepping up to report inappropriate behavior from sales clients (yes, we know it’s been going on for years).
Take Back the Power
We appreciate those individuals who continue the dialogue, bringing the issue to the forefront of our consciousness. This puts pressure on leaders in positions of power to properly create and sustain a climate where this behavior is not tolerated. But we also have to manage day by day and interact with individuals who say #IDidntDoThat as in “You misunderstood my actions.” or “You’ll never do anything about it.” There’s no perfect answer, but here are a few options.
- Decide where you draw your lines. I know of some prominent men who won’t have dinner alone with another woman or won’t be alone in a room with a woman. It may sound extreme, and some worry that it inhibits men from mentoring women, but that’s the lengths they’ll take to avoid the specter of poor behavior or a wrong accusation. When an unfamiliar or not referred male contacts me and requests a meeting I typically start with a conference call to screen them. If they won’t agree to that, they don’t get a meeting.
- Phone a friend. If you’re not sure about an upcoming event or situation, call a trusted friend to discuss the setting and attendees to get a second opinion. Sometimes our focus on taking care of business and accomplishing a goal blinds us to the subtleties of an environment or agenda. One of my colleagues will phone a friend during the meeting clearly stating where she is, what she’s doing, and when she’ll be leaving, to ensure that a questionable person in the room knows that others are tracking her whereabouts.
- Use your intuition. Many years ago, I worked with a leader who, while I didn’t know it for a fact, I suspected was the type to engage in inappropriate workplace relationships. He was friendly with me and at times three or four of us leaders would go to lunch together. One day I was standing in the office talking to two other people. I saw him out of the corner of my eye come down the hall towards us with a smirk on his face and his eyes locked on me. As he got closer, he didn’t break his stride or eye contact, and I instinctively stretched out my arm, palm facing him, to stop him and gave him my “Are you crazy!” look. If I hadn’t done that I felt like he was going to kiss me or get REALLY close to it. As I’m retelling it, this sounds absolutely ridiculous. He knew he was wrong. He never behaved inappropriately with me thereafter. Trust your instinct about people and adopt protective behaviors to minimize your chances of being harassed.
- Control the environment. You can probably control more of it than you think. If you’re meeting with someone who you don’t have good vibes about, bring a colleague or arrange for one to “happen to stop by” at an opportune moment. Select the meeting location or time, involve others in the conversation. There are times when I’ve created a reason for rescheduling or relocating a meeting because I didn’t feel comfortable with the arrangements.
- Be willing to walk away. This is the hard part. I believe that I’m just as capable as any man of performing my job, and I don’t like to feel that I need to approach situations differently or feel left out because of my gender. But there are some meetings I’ve decided not to attend because I don’t feel comfortable in the environment (i.e. a lot of men and booze) or with the personalities (i.e. arrogant and oblivious to others’ opinions). Maybe I missed a good business opportunity. Maybe I didn’t. I’ll never know, but I had to make a tough decision in my own best interests.
- Bravely speak up. In many of the now public harassment allegations that have come to light over the past several years where multiple recipients are involved, many people knew that “John” had an issue, but no one addressed it. There’s strength in numbers, but it takes one person to start a movement. You could start by asking, “Is it just me or is anyone else uncomfortable with this situation?” Document your experience. Share it via available reporting venues. Then, review option 5 above.
One of the earliest records of unwanted affection is in the Bible when Potipher’s wife pulled Joseph’s clothes off as he ran away from her repeated advances. She then lied about it to her husband, accusing him of making a pass at her. So regrettably, I expect that these issues will never go away, but I hope that all of us will feel more empowered to address it.
Remember that you won’t always be able to prove that the other party’s negative behaviors occurred. You won’t always like how the situation is handled. Maybe you even sue, and after a lengthy process win some money, but money isn’t your motive. You want respect, justice and empowerment. So, review your options and decide what you need to regain that empowerment and respect for your professional capabilities.