when an employee flirts with the boss

A reader writes:

My friend was recently promoted from chief accountant at one hotel to assistant director of finance of another hotel managed by her company. She’s been at the new hotel for about a month now, and the A/R manager — who reports to her — has gotten a little too comfortable with her. He’s begun making comments that are becoming increasingly sexual in nature. It began with remarks about how her boyfriend is “so lucky to be with her” and has grown to the level of what she describes as “increasingly explicit, sexually suggestive double entendres.”

Besides the sexual innuendos, she says that he’s an excellent worker — the best on her team — so she wants to give him a chance to change his behavior before reporting it to her manager or HR. To give some context as to why he might be acting less professionally with her than he might under different circumstances, she has a firm but casual management style and can sometimes blur the line between friend and manager. (She was my manager for about two years, so I speak from experience.) Aside from that, both he and her predecessor reported to the director of finance previously, so he’s used to being on somewhat equal footing with the person in her position. They’re also both fairly young: he is 26 and she’s 27. (Again, I’m just putting the behavior into context, not trying to excuse it — it’s clearly disrespectful and inappropriate.)

How can she clearly communicate that the behavior needs to stop?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I agree with this. And I’ll also say this based on the situation: It appears that he is trying to lessen her authority over him by making her a sex object (flirting). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen this tactic. Sexualizing women is a way to “put them in their place”.
      This needs to be shut down hard and in clear unambiguous terms as AAM has stated. I also agree that she should go to HR now and let them know that she is taking action. Don’t wait for him to come up with some weird excuse to tell HR when things spin out of control.
      She is in authority. She needs to take that authority. That means that she is treated in a non-sexual manner. That means she needs to be viewed as the one in charge of this relationship.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        And that means she needs to stop blurring the line between friend and boss.

        (No, I’m not saying she asked for it.)

      1. Zahra*

        But it’s likely that most people will view it like that when they search for advice. The headline sucks because it doesn’t say what it really is, but it’s good because that’s what people think it is. However, I think it could be more clear in the answer that it’s harassment.

    2. Alex*

      Agreed. It’s only flirting if she is enjoys it and is comfortable with it (although still questionable because it is occurring in a work environment). Making people uncomfortable isn’t a legitimate form of flirting.

  1. You see that?! - They throwing cars! How can I not?!*

    The longer she waits to shut it down, the more he may perceive that as a sign that she is partial interested/like the attention.

  2. Gadfly*

    This may be just dysfunctional workplace experience speaking, but it has always seemed to me like the promotions to management tend to overwhelmingly go to the people who are buddies with their peers and who then struggle to set boundaries after the promotion.

    1. Mookie*

      Internal promotions happen every day, though, some peers becoming supervisors and others becoming subordinates. The problem is not that she was friendly with former colleagues because the problem is not originating with her.

  3. Karanda Baywood*

    Reminds me of the new supervisor with the employee who always replied, “Your Mom” to every request she made of him.

  4. Chickaletta*

    Ok. I get that managers shouldn’t try to be friends with their employees. But why is it that so many men (and women, possessive about their boyfriends/husbands) think that because a woman is friendly to a man that they think she wants to sleep with him? Stop it already, you guys. Can’t a woman be polite and friendly, leave it at that, and that be OK with everybody??

    I think that the manager has every right to be kind towards her employees without getting sexual comments in return.

    1. James*

      I’m not sure it’s really that many. Maybe I’ve just been astonishingly lucky, but in the places I’ve worked I’ve never actually seen this happen. I’ve seen a few romances start, but it’s been mutual.

      I’m not saying it doesn’t happen or that it’s not a problem when it does; I’m just wondering if it’s as pervasive as your comment makes it out to be. My impression is that it’s more a Noisy Minority thing–you only ever hear about the sleazy guys, not the far more numerous guys who are friendly but keep it professional.

      1. Mreasy*

        It happens all the time, but often may be invisible to most people who aren’t involved in the interaction.

    2. she was a fast machine*

      This 100X

      It happens, in my experience, more often with clients or customers towards employees, but it definitely happens in the workplace too. Society is so rigged to give so many men the idea that everyone loves them and wants them, it’s almost bizarre.

      1. James*

        Not quite accurate, from a male perspective.

        Society teaches men that we must initiate things–the idea of a woman coming up and asking a man on a date is still fodder for sitcom comedy, rather than treated as a normal thing. If we wait for her to come to us, we are told, nothing will ever happen! (Not sure who initiates in homosexual relationships; I’m not homosexual and our culture doesn’t address this issue openly.) Men aren’t taught that everyone loves them and wants them; they’re taught that they have to initiate things, even if they get shot down repeatedly, because otherwise they will die alone and unfulfilled. So we’re taught to go in with the confidence that we’ll succeed in getting the woman to agree to go out with us, and if she says no, well, that’s life. There are a myriad of hunting/fishing metaphors on this topic.

        Some guys–not a huger percentage, but anything times 350 million people is a lot of people–take this to mean they need to be pushy or sleazy. They confuse being able to face rejection with the belief that with the right trick they can win anyone over. While men worth a damn view such people as pathetic, there’s a definite cultural push towards that sort of thinking. It’s dying down, but it’s still there.

        We can debate what SHOULD happen, but that’s at least my take on what IS happening, from someone who it happened to.

        1. Mookie*

          Men aren’t taught that everyone loves them and wants them

          No one is taught that, though. Women are taught to be lovable, desirable, and compliant (but not “easy”!) and that they should strive to be a wife or girlfriend before a human being with their own interests, desires, and talents, an incomplete person until they fulfill a gendered role. Failing that, they are relegated to spinsterdom or crone territory.

          There are a myriad of hunting/fishing metaphors on this topic.

          Yes. Het PUAs do regard women as prey and teach men to ignore implied or outright rejection.

          1. Mookie*

            Also, objectification and harassment are not expressions of love. Neither is flirtation or a request for a date. The latter two are not bad things, per se, but they’re not compliments or “love” or validation, even if the recipient is, well, receptive. I know you know this, but I just wanted to reiterate it.

  5. Mike C.*

    I’ve said this before here, but being a good employee does not excuse behaviour like this. Sexually harassing co-workers is not part of the commission schedule.

    1. Anna*

      “And this month, in addition to hitting 123% of his sales goals, Ted did NOT harass the admin assistants! Good job, Ted! That earned you an extra $1000 to your commission!” Said no one ever.

    2. Fiona the Lurker*

      I’d argue that behaviour like this makes him de facto *not* a good employee; being good at the job he’s paid to do is not quite the same thing, after all.

      1. Annie Moose*

        I’d like to print it off, frame it, use it as a reaction to IRL stuff! Just hand it to people when they’re being disturbing/wildly inappropriate.

  6. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    What the HELL is up with she wants to “give him a chance” before she reports it? NO. Absolutely not. If he has been a good worker and then started this shite, he had his chance. Report him NOW. Get him into a class NOW. Get this onto his performance evaluation RIGHT NOW.

    1. ZenJen*

      Yeah, the manager needs to act like an assertive ADULT and be clear in telling her employee that those comments must stop. “Giving him a chance” is an excuse to hope that the employee MAGICALLY stops making inappropriate comments on his own???

      An employee making unwanted sexual comments to his supervisor is NOT a good employee and a manager who doesn’t shut that down immediately and inform HR of the issue isn’t a good manager.

  7. Shazbot*

    From Alison’s answer: “‘That’s not appropriate to say at work. Please don’t talk to me or any other employees like that.’ She needs to say it clearly — no watering it down with a smile or a laugh.”

    I think it’s watering it down too much by saying ‘please’. Nothing involving stopping harassment should be worded in any way like it’s a request. He is her direct report and he is engaging in unacceptable behavior. He needs to be taken aside in a closed-door meeting: “You’ve made several comments recently, such as [X, Y, and Z]. I’m not impressed by this change in your behavior at work. These comments are inappropriate and you need to make sure they stop immediately.” If he grins or deflects or whines, she needs to cut him off: “–I don’t care. It’s inappropriate, and it needs to stop immediately.” Then end the meeting.

    If it gets framed as a request, I guarantee that the guy will keep trying and her other coworkers will hear the “I think/I feel/I’m asking” language and consider her the weaker for it. As awful as that is.

    1. Camellia*

      This +10000000000000000000000!! Women keep being told to say ‘please’, even here, and it waters down everything we have to say in situations like this.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I am definitely a please/thank you person. And I would not say please here. I am not asking him, I am telling him. He does not have options on this issue, his only option is to STOP. She is not asking him to pass her a pen.

  8. Sami*

    We see so many stories of this theme of blurring the lines between employee and manager here on AAM. There is a HUGE difference between being friends and being friendly.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      You have to draw the lines in order to be able to find the lines when you need them.

      If you take out the words “blurring the lines” and put in “no definition”, it is easy to see how this problem got out of hand. Once you know where your limits are it is not so hard to state those limits out loud and apply those limits on a consistent basis.

      I have had dogs most of my life. (No I am not likening people to dogs, this is about defining boundaries.) With each dog I did not tolerate barks, growls or silently bearing the teeth. (I defined my line/boundary.) Those three things are threats, I will not be threatened by my own pet. This dog I have now barked at me all. the. time. We worked on this. (I consistently applied my rules). He now has a full set of mouth sounds that he makes to tell me all different types of things but he does not threaten me. I defined my boundary, I consistently applied it and he now follows my expectation. Again, people are not dogs, and this is not about a dog. This is about knowing and being able to describe in words where your boundaries are. It takes time to be able to articulate this stuff and it is helpful to read. Reading will give a person the words they need to describe what they need to say/do.

      Granted this guy should not have been over the line in the first place. But reality is that he is over the line and, unfortunately, he has pushed the envelop with OP. Sadly, there are many ways people can push the envelop with us. If it’s not sexual harassment, it’s stealing, or failure to fill the expectations of the job, etc. And we can say, well they shouldn’t do that, which is correct but too late. We have to be prepared to handle it on the occasions that people do these things.

  9. Fresh Faced*

    To be a good employee at the base level you need to:
    1) Do good work
    2) Be good to work with
    He’s missing the second step, he is not a good employee.

  10. Rosemary*

    I work in Silicon Valley. We are practically the DEFINITION of casual, friendly workplace, and sexual comments would NOT fly here. You can be casual and friendly, and sexual comments are STILL hugely unprofessional.

    I have also spent four years as part of a dance group that did aerials, and the warm up for that was one person climbing onto their partner’s back (piggy back style) and then climbing around them without touching the ground. Unwanted sexual comments would not have been tolerated in that group, either!

  11. hayling*

    This is an interesting situation because the position of power is flipped. Usually you hear about the boss sexually harassing the employee, not the other way around. I like hearing different situations and perspectives on AAM.

    1. Alex*

      I think that’s because when the position of power is flipped, a lot of people will think it will cause less problems just to suffer in silence than to try and address it. Unfortunately, this allows the behaviors to persist. At least the power dynamic favors her so she will have a better chance of stopping it. I can see why she would feel like this is a difficult thing deal with just because of how awkward people feel when confronting these behaviors.

  12. ~ECB*

    Clearly communicating it has to stop would be “If you do not stop making inappropriate comments immediately you will be fired. This is a workplace, you are required to behave in a professional manner.” Making clear declarative statements about egregiously inappropriate behaviors should be immediate.

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