He had patted me on the shoulder before, but this was more of a squeeze. We'd known each other for years, so I didn't think anything of it and just ignored it.
Since he was one of our biggest and most supportive clients, we went out to lunch all the time. We had a great rapport, so it was natural for us to sit adjacent instead of across from one another. In the middle of one of our lunches, as we were enthusiastically planning a training program and having a great exchange of ideas, he excitedly squeezed my knee. I paused, but then dismissed it as nothing more than him expressing himself with exuberance.
It was only after he started making certain comments that I realized how uncomfortable I had become—how uncomfortable he had made me. "Next time we go out, I'll drive so that you can drink." "I know you like to go hiking and there's a great place upstate—why don't we meet to do that next time instead of lunch?” “On a scale of 1 to 10, how beautiful do I think you are? A 10."
Though I was uncomfortable, it wasn’t sexual harassment—or was it? Can sexual harassment be subtle? Complimentary? Kind? Is it still considered sexual harassment if the actions, words, looks, or gestures are without any mal intent or pressure? And how does sexual harassment work with clients? I mean, we’re taught to build rapport with clients, to charm them, use our skills to woo them into the comfort of working with us and giving us their business. He was one of our biggest accounts, and I didn’t know how to navigate the situation.
At first, I chose not to address the issue. Afraid I would embarrass myself by bringing up something I misread, I dismissed it. Then, I ignored it. The gestures were subtle, slight at best, so I felt kind of foolish bringing it up. And I made excuses for him. He was such a nice guy, married, and we had worked together for years, and he’d never acted inappropriately before.
But ultimately, as the comments started coming more regularly and boldly, I needed to think seriously about my next move. Eventually, through subtle cues, reducing the amount of time I spent with him, and being friendly but definitively all business, he gave way to better behavior. But the discomfort I felt had permanently changed our dynamic. Because he overstepped the boundaries, our once great rapport was now awkward and strained.
And unfortunately, I’m not alone—as many women are faced with inappropriate behavior, advances, or even harassment from their clients. While every situation is different, here are a few strategies I used that may help you to plan your next move.
1. Avoid One-on-One Situations
If a client has made a verbal or physical pass at you once, reduce or eliminate your alone time with him in the future. Avoid dinner invites altogether and opt for lunches where you bring another colleague who can add value to the meeting or establish a business goal that you need to accomplish over the meal. Make a point not to drink (or limit yourself to one glass), as alcohol can create a more casual, comfortable tone, and you need to establish clearer boundaries that things are all about business.
2. Clearly Decline All Advances
Laughing or smiling at the advances or going along with them to prevent the situation from being awkward will only send a mixed message. Keep things as professional as possible. It’s always OK to say, “I know we have a lot to accomplish—let’s get back to business.” You can also let your client know you are in a committed relationship. Although you don’t necessarily want to combine your private life and business, it may help to indirectly ward off advances. And moving forward, ensure all of your emails and phone calls are cordial, but not flirty or overly friendly.
3. Keep Records
Even as you take steps to eliminate opportunities for advances, identify and assess the behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable. Did it happen once or is it continuous? Write down what you have experienced, and if it happens more than once, keep records. This will be crucial if you want to report it at some point.
4. Decide Whether or Not to Report It
If it happens once and you make it clear you’re not interested in anything but business, and the behavior stops, you may not want to report the incident to your employer. However, if it happens repeatedly, or hinders your work ability in any way, you must report it—ideally sooner rather than later. Use your documentation and be as fact-focused and rational as possible. To make a clear case for yourself (and this is true in any situation), you need to make it about the facts, not about your emotions. And if your boss doesn’t listen, go to HR.
5. Be Prepared to Walk Away
Finally, if the behavior doesn’t stop, be prepared to walk away. Believe me—even if this is a big client, or if you’re a struggling entrepreneur, it’s better to miss out on a business opportunity than to risk your reputation or comfort.
Words and actions that have too intimate a feel, make you uncomfortable in any way, or are straight-up harassing are not appropriate. It's not always evident how to respond properly in these circumstances, especially when a client's behavior is subtle, but take it from me: There are definitely ways to handle it.