A reader writes:
I work in a retail store, and they recently had to replace several managers at once. All of them came from outside the company, so there was an awkward transition where the new managers were trying to learn the basics about our store. We front-line workers had to show them how to do a lot of things (register functions, for example) since the company was only interested in training them for their management duties.
I get along great with just about everyone I work with, and these new managers are no exception. But one of them is male, and when I went out of my way to make them all feel welcome (knowing the higher-ups had basically thrown them in to drown), I think he thought the attention meant I was interested in him. After a couple of weeks, he asked me if I “liked him liked him.” Maybe I should have said no, but the first thing that popped out was that I thought he was married. He said he was but “I don’t have to be.”
I told him I was flattered but that his being married was a deal-breaker. (I don’t know that I’d be interested anyway, but his being married made that moot). He pressed a little bit, even giving me his number a few days later, but I feel like I did a good job of being firm but not rude about it. So we get along great at work and I don’t feel awkward around him.
Over the past couple of months, he’s given me a few little gifts. They weren’t anything huge or out of nowhere—we’d been talking about this restaurant which had just opened up nearby, and I mentioned I used to love going to the one in my home state. The next time I came in, he gave me a $25 gift card to the restaurant. I felt a little weird because of him having asked me out earlier, so while I was really happy about it, I took him aside later and said that as much as I appreciated the gift, I just hoped he understood that I still felt the same way about getting involved with him. He said he was fine with that and had just thought the card would make me happy.
Since then, he’s given me a DVD I’d been waiting for the release of and a batch of chocolate-covered strawberries from Godiva. I tend to chatter at work about things I’m excited about (things I’ve bought, new movies coming out, etc) and he must have heard me telling other people I liked or wanted these things. Because I’d been firm about not being interested in him, I didn’t see anything wrong with accepting them.
But I’ve had a few conversations with people (not coworkers, since I feel like that could bite me in the butt) in my life that now make me wonder. They seem to think I broke some rule of ethics by taking the gifts. This is a retail job to pay the bills while I look for something better, so I don’t worry about the ramifications on the same level that I would if I were on a career track. But suppose I were already at that first “real” job and the same thing happened. Would it be better not to take gifts from the boss if they’re not for a specific holiday? Or is it only inappropriate if you know the boss has feelings for you?
(Note that I’m aware it’s not smart for him to be doing this because he’s the manager, and he’s absolutely an ass for wanting to cheat on his wife. But he’s an adult and knows what he’s doing, so I feel that’s his problem, not mine).
You need to stop accepting the gifts, immediately. And you’re being way too nice to this guy, and have been from the beginning — and might be engaging in some fairly active self-deception here as well.
First of all, a manager should not be asking out an employee. I realize that this might not be taken quite as seriously in retail, but it doesn’t change the fact that managers should not ask out employees — because dating an employee is in direct conflict with the manager’s ability to fully do her job. Furthermore, no matter how nice and unthreatening a person the manager might be, many employees in this situation don’t feel fully comfortable saying no to someone who controls their paycheck, so the idea of true consent is compromised at best. So your manager is already a huge ass for coming on to you in the first place.
Add in the fact that he’s married, and he becomes even more out of line and gross. Then add the fact that he’s continued to pursue you after you turned him down, and my head wants to explode.
However, do you not see that after his first overture, you opened the door for him to continue? Responding to his overture with “I thought you were married” rather than with “no” essentially said that if he wasn’t married, you’d be open to something more. It doesn’t matter that he’s married — you’re not interested in dating your boss, and that’s the message you need to convey. Not that you’re flattered (!), and not that the problem is that he’s married — because both of those things undermine the “no” that you should be delivering.
And now he’s giving you gifts, and you’re accepting them. I can’t tell if you sincerely believe there’s nothing wrong with this, or whether you like the attention and feeling of being favored by him, or whether you just want the gifts. But come on — he’s not giving everyone else gifts, right? He’s giving them just to you. If you’ve convinced yourself that this is okay because you’ve told him you won’t get involved with him, you’re fooling yourself — accepting gifts in this context is basically saying you’re leaving the door open to inappropriate involvement with him. Because accepting gifts from your boss in this context is inappropriate.
So you need to stop that. The next time he gives you something, say, “No, thank you. I can’t accept this.” If he presses you, say, “I’m not comfortable accepting gifts that are being given just to me and not to all employees. Please respect that.”
You wrote that because you’ve told him you’re not interested, it’s “his problem” if he continues to see you in a other-than-professional light. But you’re continuing to engage with him in an inappropriate way, and believe me, he’s considering that to be a message that contradicts your statement that you’re off-limits. (Because, frankly, it kind of is. At a minimum it’s coming across — to him and probably others — that you like the attention, and it’s possibly coming across as more than that.)
Professional adults do not give each other gifts like this, particularly when one has already made a move on the other. Put a stop to it, today. And frankly, it’s probably also worth doing some thinking about whether there are other situations where your actions haven’t been consistent with a message you felt you were giving, and why, and how you can change that.