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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Help! How Do I Handle Sexual Harassment by a Senior Partner?

Dear Fran,

I work in an office with about 15 female employees and three male senior partners. One of the senior partners has always made me uncomfortable—from the way he stands too close while talking to the way he puts his hand on my shoulder to the way he makes inappropriate jokes. He does this with every female employee, so it's not as though he's singling me out specifically, but I seem to be the only one who is actually uncomfortable. 

I've been working there for about 10 months and it's just gotten harder and harder to deal with. From the way he acts, it's clear he doesn't respect any of the women who work for him and to top it all off, I recently found out that he's in a relationship with one of my (married) co-workers.

I understand that the way he acts is inappropriate and could possibly even be sexual harassment, but how do I address it without causing a major problem? Every day I get more and more fed up with his behavior, but there is no way to address the discomfort without endangering my job—because it's a small business, he is in charge of employee problems. The senior partners are all close friends and I know that anything I say to one of them would not stay confidential or be dealt with appropriately. 

This is my first real job out of college and I don't want to endanger my chance at a positive recommendation down the road. What should I do?


Disillusioned and Confused

Dear Disillusioned and Confused,

I so wish male and female consciousness-raising along with our sexual harassment laws had eliminated this sort of thing, but apparently things are little different than back when I was working in the corporate world, where in three out of three of my early jobs I had to cope with the unwanted attention of a married, male boss. The harassment was so direct and constant in my first job in a two-person office that I simply had to quit. (See my response to “Uncomfortable” in a past article.)

It was in the second and third jobs, however, where I faced scenarios more similar to the one you describe. In these cases, it was lewd insinuations, jokes, the occasional inappropriate hand on my shoulder, and (often complimentary) comments, in one case by the VP of sales in a large multinational company, and in the second by the advertising manager of a famous magazine, a man who eventually rose to the very top of a huge media conglomerate, apparently (from what I heard over the years) with the same proclivities well in evidence. The truth is, I, like many women, simply had to suck it up, and I did, and managed to have successful stints in both places.

My best advice to you, therefore, may be to remind you that life is often unfair, uncomfortable, and emotionally messy. Welcome to the real world. Laws don’t whip human behavior into some sort of ideal; sometimes there’s just no way to address a problem without lots and lots of pushback. As a practical matter, unfortunately if you take something like this into the legal realm, you’re probably the one who will end up suffering, even if technically such behavior does violate the second part of the definition of sexual harassment—conduct that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.

I’ll get to your options in a minute—but I’d suggest that your first task be to find ways to cope with the situation. For one, set your boundaries, and avoid encouraging this man in any way. If he puts his hand on your shoulder, remove it calmly and go on with the business at hand. If you have to meet with him, leave the door open.

In addition, don’t allow him to undermine your confidence in your own capabilities, your contribution to the business, or your self esteem. Learn as much as you can about the business, make yourself indispensible, and put yourself out there with new ideas. Get as much from this job as you can, even despite the situation.

Next develop some coping mechanisms that can help you take your mind off this irritating situation, like meditation, yoga, or journaling. As a matter of fact, it would probably help emotionally to at least keep a record of the man’s boundary violations, even if you’ll never use this record in a court of law.

Now, let’s talk about addressing the problem. As I see it, you have four basic choices, each of which presents some risk of “causing a major problem,” as you say:

1. Compose an anonymous letter, and without naming any specific behavior or circumstance that might identify you as the complainer, say something like:


I’m writing this letter anonymously on behalf every female employee in the company. There should be a proper standard of conduct and boundaries in our office with regard to male/female interactions. We all work very hard and are deeply interested in the work and in the prospects for the company’s success, and your casual approach to this matter with all of us makes the atmosphere very uncomfortable. I’m certain you know what I mean. PLEASE CUT IT OUT.

Figure out a way to either send the letter to him or leave it on his desk without any possibility of anyone discovering that you’re the sender, or seeing you do it. Now I certainly can’t guarantee this will change anything at all, but it seems to me the least risky course of action. It can only be done if you haven’t yet mentioned this as a problem to anyone, and if you’re certain the man does this to everyone (or nearly everyone) in the office.

2. Since I doubt everyone else is as sanguine as you say about the boss’s behavior, you might try casually bringing up the matter to the one female employee you feel most friendly with, or the most trustworthy one. Choose someone you’re relatively sure has endured this. Say something like, “Wow, John was really impossible this morning.” Elaborate on whatever he did, then say, “Doesn’t his behavior bother you?” If she says, “No, it doesn’t bother me,” denies anything inappropriate, or minimizes the behavior, move on to the next woman. (Obviously skip the woman with whom he’s having the affair.)

If you get the same reaction after talking to six or seven of the women in the office, give up, and accept that you’re basically stuck. Of course, if you try this one, you won’t then be able to move back to my first suggestion. But you might well find that everyone is as upset about this as you are, and then you can band together. Strength does come with numbers. Remember unions?

3. Address the issue when you are in private with this man. If he puts his hand on your shoulder, remove it and say, “Really, John, we work together,” or, “You know, I don’t appreciate this sort of thing.” If he makes an inappropriate joke, don’t laugh. And don’t give him a chance to answer or comment on your lack of a sense of humor, just simply and pointedly go on with the business at hand. (Once again, you can’t really try this one if you’ve already sent the anonymous letter.)

4. And finally, start looking for another position.

Really. I think those are your choices. Maybe some readers will insist that you always have to confront such things, or have other ideas (in which case, please leave them in the comments section!). I wish you good luck, and thanks for asking.


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Photo of sexual harassment courtesy of Shutterstock.