*Names have been changed. This is a true story.
“Hi! I’m *Andrew.” The beanpole-thin sales guy in his early 30’s said, holding out his hand to me. I shook it and introduced myself as my boss walked over with another Moscow Mule. Andrew’s smile widened as his hand lingered in mine before I uncomfortably pulled away.
Handing me the drink, my boss looked at Andrew with pride. “Andrew is one of our reseller’s top performing sales people.” He said, playfully elbowing Andrew in the ribs, “We’re excited to have you sell some more of our products, Andrew!” My boss laughed and I saw Andrew quickly look me up and down before turning to my boss with a smile.
“Absolutely.” he said.
Before we could say another word, an event organizer announced that the reseller’s award ceremony recognizing the top salespeople in the company was about to start. My boss and I said goodbye to Andrew and started heading towards the auditorium where the ceremony would be held.
“You need to make friends with him,” My boss told me as we briskly walked down a hallway. “He has a high track record at his company and we need him to get excited about our products. Get to know him a bit, let him talk about himself, and get him to agree to sell for us.”
After the ceremony, I lingered outside the auditorium doors. Andrew had won a ton of awards that night and I was wondering how I was going to find him to start a conversation.
“Hey you!” A voice behind me interrupted my thoughts.
Speak of the devil. I turned around to find Andrew, wearing a too-tight button down shirt, a cocky smile and a WWE-esque ‘Best Seller’ belt around his waist. He cocked his hip slightly, showcasing his prize. “Fancy seeing you here.” He said coyly.
Out of habit, I glanced down at his left hand and saw that he was wearing a wedding ring. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe I was just misinterpreting his actions as flirtation, I thought. Deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt, I smiled back at him.
“Hey Andrew!” I said enthusiastically. “Congratulations on the awards. Looks like you really raked it in!”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “Oh you know, this happens every year.” he said, “I’ve been a sales person since I was in college. I was making six figures when all of my friends were broke.” He chuckled. “I got all the women then. I’m the ladies man.”
Internally, my eyes rolled in irritation. But I silently reminded myself why I was there and laughed at his ‘charm’ before changing the subject.
“I would love to hear about your experience in sales over the years.” I said, “I’m in sales myself and I want to learn as much as I can from other professionals since I’m just starting out. Maybe we could talk business sometime?”
He put his arm around my shoulders. “Well why not right now!” he said. “Let’s grab a drink and we’ll talk about it.”
I shrugged out from under his arm. “Sure, why not?” I said.
We walked to a whiskey and cigar bar in the hotel, and sat down. I proceeded to light a cigar from the wrong end like an idiot. Laughing at myself while trying to keep a good amount of distance between Andrew and I, I began to lightly make fun of the way he was incrementally moving closer to me.
“Bro, I know you think you’re cool for winning those awards, but don’t get too cocky now!” I said.
He looked at me seriously. “Don’t call me bro.” He said, reaching over to touch my hand. “That’s not what I want to be to you.” I moved my hand away, confused. His wedding ring was gone.
“Um, hold on.” I said, looking straight at him. “Where’s your wedding ring?”
“What wedding ring? “ He sputtered, “I was never wearing a wedding ring.”
I was shocked. I knew my eyes had not deceived me; I had looked at his hand earlier in the night for this very reason, and he had definitely been wearing a ring.
“No, no, don’t pull that on me.” I said, annoyed. “You were wearing a silver wedding ring with blue stones in it. Why did you take it off?”
He solemnly lifted his right hand in the air like a scout. “I swear on my mother’s grave I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. I’m not married.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Well, either way,” I said, “I have a boyfriend.”
My mind was racing furiously. All I wanted to do was throw my drink in his face and walk away, but I knew I couldn’t burn this bridge. He could hurt my professional opportunities and could take away a piece of my business that I needed. Even so, there was no reason I should have to put up with this kind of behavior. Before I could devise my escape, a man who turned out to be one of Andrew’s largest customers walked up to us.
“Andrew!” He exclaimed, jovially slapping him on the back. “How’re you doing my man? How’s your wife?”
I said goodnight and left.
Being a woman in a male dominated industry can be incredibly challenging. Many times it is assumed that we are to silently put up with sexist, inappropriate, and sometimes even dangerous behavior in order to get ahead in our work places and keep business relationships cordial. But this creates a culture of oppression and facilitates an environment where women feel powerless against unwanted advances and unprofessional behavior. This expectation is incredibly unproductive and sexist in and of itself.
Over my – albeit short – professional career, I have used a couple of different methods to combat business partners’ advances without destroying important professional relationships (I still have a productive working relationship with Andrew by the way!). Taking into consideration that every person and situation is different, here are six tactics that I have used in my places of work that have empowered me to stand up for myself against unprofessional behavior and demand the respect that I deserve.
*Note – Though written from the perspective of a woman, this relates to men fighting unprofessional advances from their colleagues as well.
Tactic 1: Call it like it is.
When inappropriate behavior in the workplace begins, it’s no time to play games. Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to just dodge advances and try to ignore the uncomfortable remarks. But this allows the problem to worsen unchecked. In my opinion, it’s better to confront the issue head on. Addressing a problem respectfully, but without apology will bring it to the surface and put you in control of the situation. As a professional in the workforce, you have every right to verbalize a problem, identify a solution, and demand respect.
Ex: “Jason, I am not comfortable with the way you talk to me/touch me unnecessarily.You need to stop. I look forward to continuing a professional relationship with you, but don’t cross that line. Do we understand each other?”
Tactic 2: Don’t stay quiet.
If the problem is occurring within your company, it’s important to report these instances to your HR Department. If you can, organize a meeting with the offending party and a mediator to address the issue. If the problem persists even after mediation, or if the person is outside of your company’s jurisdiction, identify multiple people that you trust inside your company and tell them everything. Explain to them exactly what is going on, what tactics the person uses to undermine or make advances towards you, and what things to look for. Come up with a strategy together, where your colleagues can look out for you and call out the behavior when they see it happening. The more people that know, the more support you will have in standing up for yourself. Remember, there is strength in numbers.
Ex: “Linda, Jason has been making passes at me. He stops me in the halls to talk to me, touches my back or my waist unnecessarily, and makes me really uncomfortable. Whenever you see us together, please join us so I have backup.”
Tactic 3: Don’t be alone.
If your colleague or business partner does not stop bothering you once you’ve called out their behavior, and the issue was not taken care of by upper management (or if he doesn’t answer to that department), do everything in your power to NEVER be alone or isolated with that person. If they request a meeting alone with you, tell them that you would like to invite a colleague or would like to meet in a public place. If they ask why, you can simply tell them the truth. No matter what your position is in your company, you have the right to feel safe in your work environment. Whatever you need to do to make sure that your safety is not compromised is worth doing.
Ex: “I am not comfortable with meeting alone. Who else would be appropriate to join us in this discussion?”
Tactic 4: Take back the power.
It’s very easy to feel powerless when dealing with business partners, colleagues, or supervisors who are trying to take advantage of you. Power is what individuals like this feed on, relishing in their ‘control’ over another person. That’s why it’s important to refuse to play their game. It’s also important to remember that you are in control until you give up your control. Remain confident, professional, and immovable in your stance against inappropriate behavior. Don’t try to hide or stay in the background. Confront the issue head on in whatever ways are available to you, and let them know that you are not going to play the victim. Stay on top of the problem by calling out the little things they intentionally do to make you feel uncomfortable. The more you let them know that you are not going to let this behavior slide, the less often they will likely try to bother you.
Ex: “Jason, what you just said was super inappropriate. I am your colleague, please don’t speak to me like that.”
Tactic 5: Present a solution.
If you have implemented tactics 1-4 and the offending party still hasn’t adjusted the way they interact with you, tell them your strategy in dealing with their behavior. This might sound counter intuitive, but when you a.) alert someone to the fact that you are aware that their behavior is inappropriate, b.) let them know that you are going to be actively combatting this behavior, and c.) tell them how you will combat this behavior so they can be crystal clear on when their actions are affecting you, this will set a mutual understanding on how you want to be treated. Even if it’s a one sided agreement, you are refusing to be a passive bystander to their actions, making them aware of your need for respect and professionalism any time that the line you draw is crossed.
Ex: “We’ve talked about how your inappropriate jokes make me really uncomfortable and you haven’t stopped telling them. How about from now on, whenever you start telling me that kind of joke, I will interrupt you and tell you the cheesiest joke I can think of. Then we can both be uncomfortable.”
Tactic 6: Rearrange.
If all else fails and your colleague still makes you uncomfortable, actively find ways to lessen the number of times you cross paths. Can you move desks? Do you really have to walk out at the same time? Is there another table at work happy hour you can sit at? Mind you, this is not about hiding or running away from the problem – it is about taking control of the amount of interaction you have with someone in more informal settings in order to lessen your anxiety at work and prioritize positive interactions. The more you can stay away from behavior that makes you uncomfortable or feel like you’re not in control, the more empowered you will feel to perform well at work.
Ex: “He walks out at 5, I’ll leave at 5:05.”
You do NOT need to passively put up with inappropriate behavior in order to be successful in your career. By standing up for yourself, even in the little things, you are setting a precedent for how you deserve to be treated in your workplace. You are taking the initiative by recognizing your value as a person and as a professional and refusing to accept behavior that lessens or discredits your value. Though this kind of shift in behavior may be nerve wracking at first, the more you stand up for yourself, the more natural it will become. And who knows; by proactively dictating the way you deserve to be treated, you may inspire other women in your workplace to do the same thing.
Originally published November 5th, 2017 on bevalyouable.com