I work in a role that requires me to engage with a lot of external partners. I was recently visiting a partner and, while grabbing after work drinks, he began to make very inappropriate comments about my appearance. I laughed it off and attempted to change the subject. That worked for a bit but he kept coming back to the way I looked and other very lewd comments. I finally made up an excuse and called it a night but I don't know what to do now. He's an important partner but I don't want to be in a situation where I'm ever alone with him again. I'm also fairly new to this role and don't want my manager thinking I can't do my job. What should I do?
Laughing it Off Isn't Working
Dear Laughing it Off Isn't Working,
Let me begin by saying I am so sorry that you had to experience this. This sort of behavior is, unfortunately, much more common than most people in fields like higher/international education would like to admit. The number of times I have spoken to colleagues who have been in the EXACT same situation as you is appalling. And then for you to be the one worrying about your job and your competency…ridiculous! I am so sorry!
Now, there are a couple of layers here. Let’s start with how you’re feeling. Many times in situations like these, the victim feels inadequate or guilty, like it was their fault, like they led the perpetrator on. Why did you laugh it off? Why didn’t you just walk away or tell him it was inappropriate right then and there? Why did you agree to drinks in the first place? There are a million “what if” or “why” questions we play through our minds over and over again. If this is you, I am going to tell you to STOP right now. NONE OF THIS is on you. You did what you needed to in that situation with not only your safety in mind, but with the extra pressure of potentially losing an important partner in the beginning of a new role. Let me repeat that. You did what you needed to. If you are having these thoughts, I hope you have taken the time to speak to friends or family, perhaps a therapist, someone that can help you process the feelings that you are having - this is going to be an important step in moving forward. If you’re not having these thoughts, and are doing fine, then great.
The second step is going to be to think through what you want to do. You mentioned not wanting to be alone with this man again. Does that mean you’re okay continuing to work with him as long as that condition is met? Or do you want to be taken off of this account? This is where your personal comfort and your career ambitions may come head to head. Perhaps being on this account is really important for your career or maybe it isn’t and you can find another account with a much more professional partner. In these kinds of situations, many of us will, unfortunately, put aside our personal discomforts for the job. While I wouldn’t recommend that per say, I also don’t know what the situation is for you at this job so this will be a decision you will need to make or at least consider before speaking to a supervisor. There is no wrong decision here as long as you are doing what’s best for you. One thing I will say is no job is worth your personal safety.
Once you’ve thought through what you would ideally like to do, it will be important to speak to your supervisor. Any half decent supervisor is going to be more than understanding of this situation and ask how they can support you. This is where you can lay out what you would like to see happen or ask your supervisor for guidance around what the options are and what the potential impacts are to you. Your supervisor should be able to give you insights to make a more informed decision and provide you with the necessary resources.
Unfortunately, we also live in a world in which the company’s bottom line is sometimes worth more than an individual and their safety. In this case, you may have to make a tough decision about where the line is for you and whether you want to go to HR or even continue to work for an organization whose values and priorities don’t align with yours. I hope it won’t come to this, but if it does, then like you did in the situation initially, do what you need to in order to take care of yourself. Be loyal to yourself!
P.S. Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I’m curious what the amazing community of educators reading this post has to say. Chime in, folks! What thoughts do you have for Laughing it Off Isn't Working? Share your thoughts on the Global Leadership League’s LinkedIn page.
Please note: This response is provided for informational purposes only. The information contained herein is not legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice or legal opinions of a licensed professional. Contact a personal attorney or licensed professional to obtain appropriate legal advice or professional counseling with respect to any particular issue or problem.