Handling Inappropriate Behavior in the Workplace: Trust Your Gut

The other day we talked about dating in the workplace…what to do when you develop a crush on a colleague?  But what about when you get unwanted comments or put in situations where you feel a co-worker or boss is treating you inappropriately?

First of all …what is inappropriate? Most women would say trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable or if you feel a lack of respect…it probably is inappropriate.  Many young women don’t expect to be treated differently in the workplace because of their gender and many have not run across it. However it still exists, particularly in fields that are less progressive, or as a group of working women I spoke to recently described, are dominated by more “old school” guys. The problem is for some women starting out, they don’t know how to handle it. You wonder: maybe it’s not a big deal, should I make a big of deal out of it?  I need the job, I want to be liked and in the end, promoted.

This advice from a group of working women who have largely worked in more male dominated fields and have experienced a variety of inappropriate behavior. From sexist comments from a male manager in an elevator full of younger female employees to emailed pictures of a older male colleague in a pool with his 21 year old girlfriend. Some women may laugh this off and take the approach of being one of the guys. Women have divided views on this (and I’m not advocating which is the correct or politically correct approach as this is real women’s perspective on what they have learned from their experiences):

Woman 1: “If you take the approach that you’re one of the guys and you don’t “cry to HR” when they treat you inappropriately, then you do become one of the guys and that is a corrosive thing.”

Woman 2: “No, my point is you have to put them in their place. You have to do that part but then you call them on their s***. It’s a little good cop and bad cop.”

Woman 3: “A woman told me a great response that she has when someone says something that is sexist or just plain uncomfortable. She just looks at them and laughs and says, “That is sooooo inappropriate”. She diffuses the situation by “assuming” that of course they were just kidding.” It isn’t confrontational but it says don’t try that again.”

On the other hand, many women do, appropriately, feel uncomfortable with this type of behavior. Several of the young women who received the emailed photos I mentioned above came to their female manager to ask, “That was inappropriate wasn’t it?”  She told them if they felt uncomfortable go to HR. But what she wanted to say was to tell him to shut up and back off. She acknowledged that when it’s your first job, it’s can be intimidating to go the HR route.  You don’t know what the outcome will be and you feel like you need the job more than you need them (more on that later).

In the end this was her advice:

“There are two ways to handle it if you don’t want to go to HR.  If you’re uncomfortable and you’re not necessarily a confident individual, you can provide a statement that’s non-verbal. You look at the person. You provide a completely blank stare, you look away and you walk away. You’ve made an indication that it’s not going to happen again. This says that it is not appropriate but you don’t have to actually say something that you regret later. By not reacting or engaging you are not encouraging the behavior to occur again. I think the important thing to carry away is that the guy is making an ass of himself. Do not internalize this. It is no reflection on you.

The second thing I always did was to always make it clear to my boss that something inappropriate was communicated to me. You can do it casually in conversation. Oh so and so said this to me.  Then if there were ever a time when I had to go to HR or I felt that I’d had enough, someone else knew about it and it wasn’t just me.”

Other women reassure us that when you do trust your instincts, you probably won’t regret it:

Woman 1: The overriding thing that I’ve learned over the years is to trust my instincts, be myself and do what I think is right. So whether it’s a guy who made an inappropriate comment or sent me a picture or a boss who mistreated me, you have to be true to yourself.  My first boss talked down to me all the time. Then one day, I was working at the drafting table and she was on the other side of it and made another demeaning comment to me. Finally, I made a fist and said, “Please do not speak to me in that tone. I find it unnecessary.” She backed down. It was weird. I was 23 and that really taught me a valuable lesson to always stand up for myself. I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman.

Woman 2: It’s not only trusting it but also having the confidence to trust it. What will happen is that you stood up for yourself and if the other person doesn’t like it or that deal falls through, whatever it is, in the long run, it’s how you see yourself that is more important. You learn nine times out of ten, if not even more, that you were right.  You may just have to withstand a little adversity in the middle of it.

Or sometimes you don’t get what you want. You have to approach the situation with maturity and calm and say this is how I feel. I’m sticking with my moral code here in a mature and unemotional way. Then you can go or hang up the phone and cry and be a woman if you want to but I really feel like that has served me well.

Woman 3: And if you don’t trust your gut, what’s likely going to happen is that a year later the self is going to say to self, “I knew better.” So then you whiplash yourself because you didn’t listen to yourself.  Sometimes it takes going through that once to learn, but really try to listen to your gut instinct.



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