“I let out a sigh of relief, took a sip of wine and mingled. They had flown me to the conference as a facilitator and expert and I felt like my session had gone well. I saw the owner of the firm across the room and he made his way toward me. This felt like the start of a great partnership and potentially more consulting work for me. He walked up next to me, slid his arm around my waist, and with vodka-scented breath whispered, ‘I’ve always thought you are attractive, let’s ditch this party and head up to my room.’ I saw a few sideways glances from his employees standing nearby and wanted to shrink right out of that Ann Taylor suit and get on a plane and go home.” –Female sales executive, married with 2 kids, Des Moines
I sat listening to her experience, shaking my head and commiserating with own tales of “professional creepery.” It's clear it impacts all ages, genders, sizes and demographics. Every few months an experience nudges me to write about it, but I back away, knowing it’s a topic that ignites blame, insecurity and finger-pointing. I hesitate to put thoughts to paper, because it’s a hard thing to talk about. But then again, many things worth discussing are.
It’s estimated that approximately 25% of the workforce has dipped their toe into the waters of workplace dating. If you’re looking for love or companionship in the pool of your professional network, this isn’t the article for you. You may want to check out “I regret dating a coworker...”
All kidding aside, there’s a population of people who are not seeking a sexual partner from their professional network. They are in a committed relationship, or simply want no part of mixing their work and personal lives in this way. I’m in this camp.
Here’s the dilemma: as a female (Creepery happens across all demographics and genders. This is my first –hand account, relate it as best you can to your situation.) I feel conflicted. After-hours networking is important and rewarding: dinners, galas, golf, tail gaiting, and happy hours are commonplace at work. Professional bonding can lead to career opportunities, peer support, professional references, and genuine friendship. But it can also lead to suggestive come-ons, retaliation, gossip, reputation risks (see intro story), and cause relationship issues. My very spirit is built on a need to achieve, or have at least a fair chance trying, a mighty voice yelling “fight for your seat in the club!” But there’s a soft whisper afterwards “But don’t smile too much. Or accidentally brush against anyone. Or seem too interested. Or look too feminine. Raise the neckline, lower the heels, confidently look men in the eyes, but not long enough that it implies anything.”
It’s exhausting. I hear from good men in my life that they feel worried about saying or doing the wrong thing when it comes to their female counterparts. So after a few decades of navigating this tricky landscape, I’ve created some personal guidelines that encourage professional relationships and minimize the risk of misinterpretation. Harassment can happen to anyone, there’s no immunity shield to avoid it or deflecting accountability for those who instigate it. Rather, I’ve developed a blueprint on how I want to be treated and how I will treat other people in an atmosphere that is dotted with ambiguity.
1) Be unapologetic about demanding respect for my time, dignity or body.
If that little red flag goes up for any reason, I am pleasantly direct about my boundaries. A LinkedIn acquaintance (let’s call him “Jack,” totally made up name) recently messaged me about a business article I appeared in. I responded to discuss the content of the article. He messaged again. I did not respond, yet the frequency increased and the content evolved to his personal life. Soon, there were 5 unanswered messages and an invitation from Jack that we should text instead. I simply responded, “I prefer to keep all communication on the professional level.” No qualifiers, no apologies. It took me many years to realize when someone is infringing on my boundaries I don’t owe them polite subtlety. Mature, well-intentioned peers will respect the clarity.
2) Avoid invitations to move conversations into personal digital spaces.
In my experience an invitation to move conversations over to a text or messenger thread, are rarely for the purpose of being more professional. Personal digital channels are themselves not problematic. I enjoy a wide social network of colleagues, both men and women. I enjoy their posts, pictures and getting to know their aspirations and families. My cell phone number is also accessible to many, and I exchange texts with male colleagues. These social connections tend to happen organically, only after establishing a baseline of trust and respect.
3) Conduct business communication as close to business hours as possible.
Admittedly, this is squishy. We live in a 24/7 connected world and I’m right there. But as a general rule, I avoid communicating privately on evenings and weekends when it’s not relevant to a timely project or event. Another business contact I had, “Dave”, accepted a business meeting with me with the caveat that it had to be in the evening. I thought that was reasonable given his long hours and standing in the community. The night before the meeting I received a thread on a social media message asking what type of wine I preferred and a winking face emoji, at 9 PM. I’m at a stage I’d rather be presumptuous than sorry so I cancelled the meeting.
4) Limit alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is present at most networking events. And I like it. I like it at receptions. I like it on the golf course. I like it in a box. I like it with a fox. You get the idea.
A glass of wine or two breaks down an invisible barrier we introverts seem to carry, just enough for me to enjoy great dialogue and get to know those I’m with. I take both my reputation and ability to drive safely very seriously, so two is the cutoff.
In addition to quantity, context matters when it comes to drinking. An invitation stating, “Are you free to grab a drink and discuss XYZ topic” next week feels innocuous and probably is. But anything I’m passionate about discussing with my male peers is just as exciting to me over lunch. There’s something inherently not seductive about polishing off a plate of fettucine alfredo. I do meet one on one with male peers, I do meet after hours, and I may enjoy a drink, but the combination of all three is a situation I don’t put myself or my peers in.
5) Avoid deep discussion about partners and relationships.
I recently had coffee with an esteemed professional acquaintance covering a range of topics. I learned a lot and valued the opportunity greatly. I’m grateful to have some trusted colleagues to lean on for mentoring and advice. But it’s easy to misinterpret professional politeness for personal interest, so keeping topics that are potentially vulnerable or emotional reserved for my personal circle is my rule of thumb. I am particularly mindful of conversations that include personal details or remarks about either person’s spouse.
It boils down to personal boundaries. I count many men among my close friends and people I admire. I enjoy great conversation about business and projects and life. At times I have to adapt the guidelines to new situations or people, but one thing I’ve learned is to be intentional about the things that matter to me most and my personal space, reputation and dignity is near the top of the list.