What Happens at Work…

After a lunch meeting this afternoon, the valet brought my car to the front of the restaurant. “A beautiful car for a beautiful woman,” declared Tommy, a good-looking six-foot green-eyed dirty-blonde who looked to be my son’s age. I was simultaneously flattered and mortified. First of all, I don’t take compliments well. They make me feel uncomfortable. Secondly, why would he flirt with me? This kid could be dating my daughter (and I’m no cougar!). Suddenly self-conscious about my fitted dress and an image I may have been projecting unintentionally, I smiled and handed him a couple bucks, then drove away.

As I headed back to the office, my mind drifted to the subject of today’s blog…

* * *

In the early 1980’s, no one talked about sexual harassment in the workplace…much less did anything about it. I worked for IBM back then and had no idea what wasn’t permitted or tolerated in a professional environment. The new hire training program never discussed inappropriate behaviors between co-workers or with customers; though I certainly heard a lot about not disparaging competitors and not accepting gifts from my accounts.

The first time a customer patted me on the tush in an elevator, I made a mental note to avoid being alone with him. His lascivious nature gave me the creeps. Worse, I worried that I somehow invited it. Never did it occur to me, however, to share the situation with my branch manager. I simply chalked it all up to being a young woman working in a man’s world.

It became evident over time, unfortunately, that an even more insidious dynamic was at play. Female colleagues who earned big bonuses, scored high on their appraisals, or received early promotions were rumored to have “slept with the boss” (or an important customer) to get ahead. And if one was pretty, she certainly wasn’t seen as serious executive material. Rarely were these women lauded for their business prowess or top-notched skill sets. I, in turn, couldn’t help but wonder if the “horizontal approach” was in fact the most expeditious way to achieving the desired vertical ascent (i.e. climbing the corporate ladder). After all, was working hard, being smart, and fine-tuning core competencies truly going to get me anywhere? Would I ever achieve career success without compromising my integrity, morals, and values? I vowed that “yes” would be my answer to both of those questions.

(After IBM I was very lucky to have gone into business with a man who was blind to my gender and saw me as a fifty-fifty partner in every way. ).

According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment [or]… work performance…” I feel fortunate that I have never been seriously victimized in the workplace; though I do wish I could go back and right some wrongs. I don’t believe that my gender or appearance has negatively impacted my work experiences in any way. I also am grateful that I never felt forced into having an affair with anyone to receive a well-earned promotion or raise.

Thanks to women like Anita Hill, Sheryl Sandberg and others, women in today’s working-world fair much better than my generation did when we were starting out. The overt wisecracks about female body parts, the not-so-subtle sexual innuendoes, and the paternalistic pats on the knee (or behind) are no longer acceptable and there are many courses of action to take.

* * *

While proper decorum is required for the workplace, and the sexual harassment of women (or men) is never okay under any circumstances, that doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate to compliment someone’s dress or tie or hairdo. And a compliment can just be a compliment; it doesn’t have to mean or lead to something more. Sometimes it just requires a “thank you.”

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