“My Boss Asked Me to Dinner and Wanted Me for Dessert” ran the title at the top of a magazine advice column. Something out of a 1950s-era women’s magazine, right next to the recipes, make-up how-to's, tips on the best way to clean lace curtains, and advice to the lovelorn?
Not at all. This particular complaint about the boss-underling relationship appeared in the very contemporary "Ask Annie" column in the November, 2002, issue of Fortune magazine.
It came from a 32-year old woman who thought she had a vital management career at her mid-sized company and a supportive mentor in her 57-year-old boss. When a “working” dinner with the (married) boss turned into a declaration of his most un-businesslike intentions, she was so stunned she could only fumble her way through the rest of the meal till she got home—alone. Now her boss was barely speaking to her, and she wanted Annie’s advice on whether or not she should “clear the air” with him.
No, responded the Annie column. The writer advised the woman to act as if nothing had happened and make every effort to regain a workable comfort level with her boss. In other words, the man had been rejected, his feelings were hurt, and it was up to the woman to fix the situation—i.e., make him feel better—if she wanted to keep her career going.
Beware the Double Standard
Guess what? Sex is alive and well in the American corporate workplace, and so is the double standard. And for many women eager to climb the corporate ladder, these realities can be career-threatening. Yes, there’s a cost to sex in the workplace, and yes, it’s almost always the woman who pays it.
Granted, we seem to be past the infamous boom-boom room behavior of the 1980s and 90s, when women at every level of the hierarchy of even the most prestigious Wall Street firms were subjected to groping, fondling, verbal obscenities, even threats of rape from the go-go guys on and off the trading floor. Today’s 20-something males are more subtle. For them, gender equality means equal opportunities for locker-room jokes and sexist posturing around the water cooler—behavior that can also be subject so charges of sexual harassment.
What’s a woman to do? We still haven’t crashed through to the corporate power positions in any great number. Lacking the power, women simply have to adapt. What too many corporate women fail to grasp is that they need to adapt proactively. For while it’s up to the woman to control a situation freighted with sex, there are some simple ways to do so.
Stay in Control
How? You can’t not deal with the guys in your department, on your work team, in the surrounding offices. You can’t not socialize with them, either. As for senior management—which, despite progress by women, is still mostly male—it’s in your interest to make contact, to see and be seen by your superiors. But superior or equal, the goal of your engagement with your organization’s males should be to establish a high comfort zone in which any suggestion of the erotic seems out of place and out of the question. You want to be seen as an ally, a pal, even a confidante—if also sometimes a competitor. You want to establish a working relationship—i.e., an association of mutual back-scratching. The men you work with should understand that you’ll support them, help them do well and look good, give them the credit they deserve—and that you expect the same from them.
So, step one is to take charge of the contact. With your equals, initiate engagement on a basis of Friendly Co-Worker. With superiors, assume the role of Respectful (But Very Talented) Subordinate. Some women have a knack for this; others will have to work at it.
Step two is to work at it. That might include boning up on sports trivia so you can sound convincing, laughing at a slightly off-color joke when you’re part of a group, or probing for a common bond you can share with separate individuals. Just remember that one bond you absolutely have in common is an interest in your business and your company.
Of course, there are men for whom any kind of familiarity is an invitation to make a sexual advance. But by starting out with the context of Friendly Co-Worker or Respectful Subordinate, you’ll be better positioned to deflect or repel an unwanted come-on.
How to Deal With an Unwelcome Advance
Every woman knows how to block a pass. But where your job is concerned, you may want to avoid the more radical maneuvers. After all, the point is to get past the moment and get on with your career.
Be sure you understand the nature of the man you are turning down. Pay attention to the grapevine; some men are well known as womanizers. If he’s a Tiger, stay out of his den. If he’s a Bear, approach him only during hibernation. If he’s a Dog, he’s probably all bark and no bite.
Humor is a great way to puncture amorous seriousness. Laugh it off. Or change the subject. Get back down to business, or ask him about his kids. Try deflecting the invitation, but make sure your message is clear: “I’d love to go for dinner, but could we make it lunch instead?—my boyfriend is in town.” Let him know you think he must be joking: “You’re so funny—you remind me of my brother,”—or worse: “You remind me of my Dad.” Finally, you can just say no.
Once you’ve delivered the rejection, revert right back to Friendly Co-Worker or Respectful Subordinate. Make it clear that you and he share a working relationship—nothing more. But make sure also that you don’t get in a situation where you’re alone with him.
Of course, if the problem persists, you’ll have to take action according to defined procedures. In most cases, you apply first to your boss—unless he’s the problem—or senior management, then to the head of Human Resources, and finally, if all else fails, to an outside attorney.
And Finally—What If It's Love?
Not every advance is unwanted, of course. The fact is, most single people meet their future spouses in the workplace. So what do you do if you are two consenting single adults who fall in love?
First, you let your bosses know that you are dating. They’ll find out anyway through the corporate tom-toms, so your forthrightness is a plus for you, and it gives management a chance to determine whether the romance involves a conflict of interest that requires one of you to be transferred.
Second, live by this rule: Work is work, and love is love, and never the twain shall meet. When you are on company time and being paid company money, you owe company business all of your attention and energy. Besides, sharing your private life with co-workers only provokes gossip and won’t do your reputation any good.
American corporate life, for all the changes now occurring in it, is still a man’s world. Unless it makes the far-right column of the Wall Street Journal’s front page, men’s reputations will not be tarnished by sex in the workplace. But for women, being tagged with the “romance” label risks irrevocable career damage. Where sex at the office is concerned, take it or leave it, but in any event, make sure you control it.
About the Author
Reals Ellig is a Co-CEO of Chadick & Ellig. With over 20 years of corporate and senior level recruiting experience, Janice has worked extensively with top management and Boards of Directors on organizational development, executive compensation, succession planning and branding initiatives. Janice is the co-author of Driving the Career Highway: 20 Road Signs You Can't Afford to Miss (2007) and What Every Successful Woman Knows: 12 Breakthrough Strategies to Get the Power and Ignite Your Career, published in 2001 by McGraw Hill and recognized as the best book in its genre by Business Week in 2002.