do I need to give up an impressive business contact who’s hitting on me?

A reader writes:

I need advice on whether I should give up on a customer senior executive as a professional resource and how to preserve the working relationship with him if his intentions are not completely professional.

I’m on the negotiating team for a negotiation expected to last several months, where the customer’s senior executive who I need advice on is their lead negotiator. I am one of the most junior (still middle management though) and certainly the youngest.

Unexpectedly, this exec called me to ask whether I’d be interested in working with him on a very high profile project, which would have been great for my resume, and a reference from him would be impressive. If I’m 100% honest, I knew part of why he asked is because he finds me attractive, but I also do good work and really wanted to be on the project.

We had a few outside chats, focusing on the project, and also intimating that he might want to poach me longer term. My management was initially on board, but changed their minds as they wanted me on something else. After that he invited me to dinner, which I accepted. He’s now calling from his personal cell and wanting to meet up more often than should be expected of a busy exec, if it was only for the purposes of a friendly professional contact. I have dined out with senior, much older men before in a professional context before with no issues, but my gut says this is different. I am now fobbing him off when he asks to meet up.

I’m going for a promotion at the moment, and part of my framing is that I’m fantastic enough that our customer wanted me on big project, so I don’t want to mention any of this at work. If I don’t get the promotion, I’m thinking of leaving, and the exec would have been a great resource, but I think it’s probably safer to not think of him as a network contact any further. I am also still negotiating with him and will be for a while, so don’t want it to be awkward.

I hate that I even have to consider my age and gender in professional interactions and feel I haven’t been smart about this and made a hash out of the whole situation.

Yeah, this sucks.

What this guy is doing to you is super sketchy. Picture him doing the exact same thing to a man instead. It’s pretty unlikely that he’d be repeatedly calling a much younger man from his personal cell and asking to meet up all the time … and if he did, it would almost be easier to recognize it as strange.

But of course, one of the reasons this kind of behavior is so insidious is that women tend to think, “Well, he could just be interested in me professionally, and I don’t want to offend him or seem presumptuous if that’s all it is.” That’s especially true when there’s a power dynamic in play because of the person’s professional position relative to yours. Too often, women’s desire not to offend people or assume too much ends up being a doorway that an awful lot of sleazebags walk right though. (That’s in no way to blame any woman who has that response. We have it so often because this stuff can be incredibly sticky.)

And it’s further complicated by the fact that some men are great mentors to younger women without having any kind of additional agenda. But you know what? Those men are generally pretty thoughtful about navigating things in a way that doesn’t make those younger women have to wonder about their intentions. It’s not actually that hard to mentor someone without making them feel creeped upon.

So, what to do in your situation?

For starters, I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong here or that you’ve made a hash out of it at all. You sound like you’ve responded perfectly appropriately. You took this guy at his word that he was interested in working with you on a project — that’s a normal response to what he was presenting as a professional overture. Okay, your gut told you that part of his motivation was that he found you attractive, but you’re entitled to think that your professional qualifications would be playing at least some role in a request to do work. You also don’t have any obligation to turn down work you’re excited about just because someone on the project might find you attractive.

And you didn’t do anything wrong by accepting his dinner invitation. In hindsight it might be easier to see what his intentions were there, but as you note, business dinners are a normal thing with people you’re working with professionally. You shouldn’t have to second-guess every business overture someone makes to you just because of your respective genitalia. That’s not to say that it isn’t useful to be aware that older men’s interest in younger female colleagues isn’t always strictly professional; of course it’s good to know that. But you shouldn’t have to curtail your own professional opportunities to guard against the mere possibility of it. (Although now that you’ve realized what his intentions are, you’re doing the right thing by avoiding the invites.)

I’d keep on declining his invitations and let him put together your lack of interest for himself. You could address it head-on with an “I’m only interested in a professional relationship with you” talk … but frankly, if you’d rather not shoulder the burden of initiating that awkward conversation, there’s no obligation for you to do it. Maybe he’d be a great guy about it or maybe, like plenty of others before him, he’d be an ass about it in ways that end up affecting you professionally. If you don’t feel like dealing with it, it’s not your responsibility to ensure that he gets a clear response to intentions he hasn’t even been explicit about. (My advice on this would different if he was being more pressure-y or if you were concerned that things would escalate otherwise. But if he’s preserving plausible deniability for himself, there’s no reason that you can’t take advantage of that too.)

Depending on your sense of the dynamics between the two of you when it comes to the actual work you’re doing, you don’t necessarily have to write him off as a networking contact altogether. Maybe you do, but before you conclude that, watch how he conducts himself after you’ve turned down a few more invitations. If he seems to get the message and keeps working with you in an appropriate way, you very well might be able to continue to include him in your network — who knows. But if he keeps it up, or if your gut tells you that something’s off, then yeah, unfortunately you’re probably better off leaving him off your networking list.

And if you’re thinking that it sucks that he’ll have essentially shrunk your professional opportunities simply because you are a woman … you’re right, it does. And it’s additionally frustrating that dudes who blithely go around hitting on the women in their professional networks — especially younger women with less professional power — seem to have no appreciation for why this kind of thing is such a crap deal for women.

Read an update to this letter.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 103 comments… read them below }

  1. voyager1*

    I think AAM is a right on with keep refusing his offers and maybe he will take the hint… maybe. But this really looks like a Kobayashi Maru no matter how this plays out of he doesn’t take the hint.

    1. Artemesia*

      Remember the secret of the Kobayashi Maru is that you have to change the parameters i.e. cheat. I would be relentless ‘naive’ about the guy’s intentions and deflect back to work and reject all social and one on ones with him. Never ‘hear’ the pass, only the work.

    2. Insufficient Data (OP)*

      You’re probably right (also love the reference).

      This was a while back so if anyone is interested in how it played out…

      I went for refusing his invites and ignoring his texts, and not long after I was pulled from the negotiations and some related projects with no explanation from my management, which left me crying in the bathroom that day.

      I got the promotion anyway, but was already job searching by that time, and will be starting a new (better) role soon.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Oh, I’m so sorry that happened. That’s terrible.

        Best of luck in finding an awesome new job.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Wow, that is so weird, OP, and I’m so sorry you had to go through such a rough and confusing experience. I’m glad that you got the promotion and will also be able to start someplace that is hopefully a better match. But I am really really sorry you had this experience :(

      3. neverjaunty*

        I am not surprised, OP. Make no mistake – everything this guy was promising you about the shiny new project and his mentorship was a lie. That’s why he acted like a petulant brat and got you off the project when you didn’t fall for his crap.

        So glad you got promoted and are getting out of there.

      4. KV*

        Wow. Sounds like he couldn’t take the rejection gracefully, huh? You were wise to handle this quietly, sounds like. I wish it hadn’t led to you losing projects you were working on, but I’m glad you’re heading to a better role.

  2. Lily Rowan*

    Ugh, that’s awful. And it’s possibly even worse (or at least, harder to figure out how to handle) that it’s still in the “plausible deniability” stage, unlike the time a GREAT professional contact stuck his tongue in my mouth after we had had a (“networking”) drink, but before he went home to his wife and child. Good times.

    1. MadGrad*

      I have no words as I am valiantly trying to hold back the vomit. What a garbage person, I’m so sorry you had to suffer him.

    2. Sfigato*

      Here’s a naive question: how often do guys with wives and kids hit on you? Whenever I am out professionally and I’m either alone with a woman or with mostly women (like at a happy hour or a conference event), I will be sure to talk about my wife and kid in part because they are a huge part of my life, but also as a way to signal “I’m not going to hit on you, please don’t hit on me, this is purely friendly/professional.” I then follow up by not hitting on them. But do guys talk about their wife and kid and then try to get you back to their hotel room? If so, ick.

      1. paul*

        I’m not sure most of them would advertise a wife and/or kids tbh.

        A director at our organization before my time apparently had a multi year relationship with a colleague from another part of the country without ever letting her know he was married…

      2. Insufficient Data (OP)*

        Well this guy avoided talk about his wife and kids like the plague, even though I knew he had them, and when it made sense to bring them up as part of the conversation.

        Most who have bad intentions will try to act like the wife and kids don’t exist, or alternatively talk about their “troubled marriage” instead.

        1. Jiggs*

          Haha, we were typing at the same time and I also hit the “troubled marriage” button. We see your game, married dudes.

      3. Jiggs*

        How often do married men hit on women in professional contexts? All. The. Time. I’ve probably had maybe one or two jobs where that didn’t happen, and one of them had no men on staff.

        Do the guys who hit on me bring up their wife and kid? Context dependent. A guy I just met who is immediately going in for the kill probably won’t mention either. A guy I’ve known for a while who decides to run a long game may often mention his children, but never his wife except in the “woe is me my relationship sucks” sense (as he gets brave enough to test the waters).

        God just typing that is depressing.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Also, in my experience, some married guys who are trying to pick up while at a conference or doing business travel will deliberately mention a wife and/or kids to signal “looking for a one-time fling, not a relationship.” Ick.

          1. Jiggs*

            Yeah, those guys are also never put off by the “I have a boyfriend/husband” line. They only react to being told to go fuck themselves instead.

            I may or may not know this due to personal experience.

            1. Dinosaur*

              Amen. I’m all for being professional but once someone has crossed the line twice (once by hitting on me in the first place and twice by not accepting my “nice” no) they have lost any expectation of professionalism on my part in responding to repeated unwanted come-ons.

      4. Tangerina Warbleworth*

        In response to your question, I think you’re fine. In fact, it highlights the problem: most women go into a professional situation expecting to be treated professionally. So, that’s the reason for the “OMG he’s married and has kids; what the hell does he think he’s doing?” when Creepy Dude really truly hits on her (i.e, “hey baby (gross thing)”, staring at cleavage, etc.).

        If you’re talking about your wife and kids with enthusiasm, and talking with these women about their interests and work like a normal person, you’re fine.

      5. Hankie Enlightenment (formerly Sarahnova)*

        They usually don’t advertise the wife and kids, unless it’s to pull the old ‘my marriage is bad’ card, but without exception, every man who’s hit on me at work was married.

      6. Excel Slayer*

        A lot. I think 100% or close to 100% of people who have hit on me in a professional context have been in a committed relationship and/or had children.

        You sound fine though. You can stay.

      7. AthenaC*

        It depends. Good guys bring up wives and kids just like you said, to signal, “You are safe from any non-professional advances from me. You can relax and be yourself.” Nefarious guys bring up wives and kids to disarm you, get you to let your guard down, and then move in for the kill.

        I once chatted up a guy at a bar (because I like talking with random strangers) and he visibly relaxed once we started talking about our respective families – I think in that case, he was actually the one worried that I was hitting on him!

  3. Hankie Enlightenment (formerly Sarahnova)*

    I really liked your comment about how the guy was using plausible deniability, so the OP can too, Alison.

    Ugh, I hate this stuff. It was such a horrible shock to me on entering the working world at age 22 that married men in their 30s and 40s would hit on me under the guise of ‘mentoring’ me. I still have the urge to warn some of our female interns so they don’t suffer the same kind of shock, but I also don’t want to be the weird specter at the feast.

    1. Hankie Enlightenment (formerly Sarahnova)*

      P.S just to be clear, I’m not talking about warning them about a specific person or persons, just warning them generally that older and more senior men can have nefarious intentions. I’d experienced harassment before, but either from boys/men of my own age or crude and unambiguous stuff on the street or in bars. I was completely unprepared for the idea that much older men would deliberately use the plausible cloak of ‘mentoring’ to put me in crappy situations.

      1. Morning Glory*

        I would recommend you don’t – I’ve seen plenty of occasions where an older-male younger-female mentorship worked out well and greatly benefited the mentee professionally in the form of guidance and networking.

        If you warn younger females about this (genuine) possibility, it could make them uncomfortable or suspicious about any mentoring relationship with an older man. That could save some young women from harassment, but could prevent others from developing the strong professional contacts they need to move up.

        1. Lora*

          That’s sort of why it’s better to warn about specific guys – there are some who are genuinely great, but there are also some who are known scumbags. I’m thinking here of John Searle, Geoff Marcy, Thomas Pogge, Jason Lieb, Timothy Slater, Christian Ott, et al.

          There were two professors at my undergrad university who were known jerks. One, thankfully, was fired, but the other was made head of the department. A great many women decided they’d much rather be doctors or dentists than go into research because they didn’t want to deal with guys like him. Thankfully, they were both really obnoxious so it was easy to see them coming – we women students made sure to pick our senior thesis projects early so we wouldn’t get stuck in those labs.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think this is a difficult balance to strike, and I’m admittedly biased on this issue (2 of my mentors are men old enough to be my father, and I think the world of them as professionals and as human beings with a deep sense of integrity). I apologize if this doesn’t come out clearly—I am certainly not trying to raise a “not all men” argument.

        It’s important for women to be aware of the potential for this kind of sexual harassment. But a blanket warning, absent any particularized guidance, tends to serve as a “prime” that causes that person to suspect all older men of being predatory. And when you expect people to suck, they often will match our expectations (the opposite is also true—people often strive to cultivate the good things others see in them). We telegraph our feelings a lot more than we realize, and being wary around colleagues, without any other reason than that person’s age and gender, can undermine trust in super toxic ways. It can also prevent someone from seeing a situation clearly because their primary lens is focused on identifying predatory behavior.

        Given the significant gender disparities in access to professional opportunities, etc., a general warning seems to discourage women from accessing mentorship and expertise. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I can’t imagine that someone is so naive that they don’t think that this sort of thing happens—I think they think it won’t happen to them, but not that it doesn’t exist.

        If you have specific warnings about specific men, then I would very carefully share those. It’s a bit of a Missing Stair approach, but I know I’m grateful to women who were older than me who let me know how to avoid situations that exposed me to greater risk. And then try to enlist others in changing the paradigm, because women like OP should not be stuck in situations that coerce them to jeopardize their personal safety and integrity in order to protect their professional standing.

        1. AMPG*

          I think a way to thread this needle is “The Gift of Fear” approach – encourage young women to trust their gut, regardless of whatever plausible deniability exists. Women are so often socialized to talk themselves out of their own suspicions that there’s something wrong with a situation, and just reminding them that if they feel like something’s off, it probably is, is a good way to help them have agency over a situation.

          1. Chinook*

            “I think a way to thread this needle is “The Gift of Fear” approach – encourage young women to trust their gut, regardless of whatever plausible deniability exists”

            I agree. When we have a female co-op student who comes back from their first field visit (we are a heavily male industry but our co-op’s are evenly split gender-wise), I try to casually touch base with them and ask how they felt about how they were treated. It has triggered some interesting conversations and usually leads me to give advice about trusting their gut as well as to start thinking about what they will and won’t accept as treatment. I also point out that the red-neck field guys who mean well are used to men & women who push back on borderline behavior (so feel free to push back) and don’t trust them because they are co-op students, not because of their gender.

            I also point out that there are also jerks and you have to trust you gut to tell the difference. My advice to them is that, if they are unsure about something being acceptable, to check in with the male co-op students (who often will say that so-and-so is a jerk if he is) or their manager (who are all awesome just clueless to some of the behavior because it doesn’t happen around them).

            Part of working with others is learning how to speak up. For some of these women, they didn’t realize that they had permission to do so or that those above them on the org. chart would back them up.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            You’re totally right. Perhaps the better “general” advice is to assume good intent, but trust (and listen to) your gut.

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Perhaps I’m cynical, but I can’t imagine that someone is so naive that they don’t think that this sort of thing happens—I think they think it won’t happen to them, but not that it doesn’t exist.

          Maybe I was extra naive as a very young adult (more of an older teenager), but I was fairly shocked the first time someone old enough to be my dad expressed that kind of interest in me. I think it was because I didn’t think of men old enough to be my dad in that way, so it didn’t occur to me that they would be thinking of me that way.

          1. Hankie Enlightenment (formerly Sarahnova)*

            Yes, me too. I had plenty of experience of men with nefarious intentions but I thought of most of these men as old enough to be my father – they did not register sexually for me at all. Also, IDK, I didn’t visualise it happening in this kind of big-corporate professional environment? That was naive of me, obviously, but I did not have a template for this more subtle stuff, and I did not come from a family who worked in that environment.

          2. Ajaya*

            You aren’t alone there. The first time that happened to me I was shocked and creeped out as well.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I’m so sorry this happened to you. It’s a good reminder for me to adjust my expectations, too. I apologize if I made you or anyone else feel marginalized about your experiences with older guys behaving in creepy (and surprising) ways.

        3. MB*

          I really agree with this. I know my father had several really successful mentoring relationships with younger women (one was so successful she was recently able to help *me* get a job). He’s in an *extremely* male-dominated field, and was very aware of that, so went out of his way to help hire/mentor/promote young women in the field. He really wanted me to go into his field, and, well, I didn’t, so he definitely had the “you remind me of my daughter” card, which is probably why it worked and wasn’t creepy. Also, he’s the best. But I am wary of the blanket “beware older male mentors” for exactly the reasons you articulate. I think this is one of those areas where it helps to listen to your instincts. If you’re feeling squicky, it’s probably not on the up and up. But there are also going to be lots of great men who genuinely do want to help you professionally. I’ve had a couple in my life, so I definitely know the value.

        4. Sfigato*

          “We telegraph our feelings a lot more than we realize, and being wary around colleagues, without any other reason than that person’s age and gender, can undermine trust in super toxic ways. It can also prevent someone from seeing a situation clearly because their primary lens is focused on identifying predatory behavior.”

          Thank you for so eloquently saying something I’ve been thinking for a while now but could never quite verbalize.

      3. Hankie Enlightenment (formerly Sarahnova)*

        And to be even clearer, I’ve had some very positive professional relationships with male mentors and bosses, so I definitely wouldn’t want to put people off them categorically. But I also got burned really badly by one of my ‘mentors’, which I’ve talked about a little on here, and which inevitably colours my outlook.

        I guess I can now feel easier in my mind about *not* saying something!

    2. Zathras*

      Yeah, I like this. You don’t owe anyone an explicit answer if they haven’t asked an explicit question. A senior colleague with genuinely good intentions needs to take on some of the work of acknowledging the fact that older men being skeevy is A Thing That Happens, and take steps to make the junior colleague comfortable.

      This guy is a grown up who presumably doesn’t live under a rock, and even if he does have good intentions, it’s not really your job to teach him how to interact appropriately with young women he knows professionally.

  4. Future Homesteader*

    AAM’s answer is such a lovely, comprehensive, and compassionate answer to this specific problem as well as helpful and clarifying meditation on gender dynamics at work. And as a woman, it’s just a nice thing to read.

    OP, you’re not alone, and his sexism is both sucky and not your fault. Good luck!

    1. Emily*

      I agree as well. This is such a difficult situation and really puts LW in a yucky spot, and Alison gave such excellent nuanced advice (as usual!).

  5. Amber Rose*

    My only thought at the end of that: :(

    It sucks LW. It really sucks. Kudos to you for being professional in the face of this bull. I’m sure your work and attitude will open other doors for you.

  6. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    Ugh, I’m SO SICK of this crap. #yesallwomen

    OP, listen to me: YOU HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG. NOTHING. Your intentions were totally reasonable given the circumstances. This man is a snake.

  7. LadyKelvin*

    This really sucks and I feel for you OP. I work in a field that is predominately male, I’m often one of 1-2 women in a meeting of 40 men. my boss is a women and she told me she was so happy I accepted the job because now she is not the only woman on the team. But we travel a lot for our jobs and I constantly have to worry about the optics of having a 1-on-1 dinner with a colleague or contact because I am a young woman and most of the men are 15-20 years older than me. But if I don’t network with them I am shooting my career in the foot, so I go and am very open about it. I feel like hiding things make them seem illicit so I will say “Oh I had dinner with Michael last night, it was nice, we chatted about X, Y, and Z” etc. That way I don’t feel like I am hiding anything and it feels more acceptable and not a “big deal”. I’m still uncomfortable with it (and most of these people are people I genuinely like and care about, they are good people!) but I am trying my best to normalize it for me and everyone around me.

    1. the gold digger*

      Interesting. I am a 53 year old woman and it would never occur to me to read anything into a younger woman having dinner with an older co-worker on a work trip. (Or any female and male co-workers, regardless of age.)

      I traveled a lot for work when I was younger and almost everyone I worked with was male, so that’s who I ate with. I am sorry if anyone is making you feel like this is something you should not be doing.

      1. Artemesia*

        I am an old retired lady and throughout my career often dined with men at conferences or while traveling on business without giving it a thought. You should just assume this is all professional and not be at all defensive or explain why you had dinner with someone. Now cuddling up and lots of dinners for two and otherwise sending out the wrong message would be a mistake — but when it makes sense to have a dinner with a colleague, don’t bat an eye. At conferences I usually organized small groups for dinners but occasionally it was useful to meet with just a guy and share project interests. And yes sometimes I had to deal with their hidden agenda of conquest — but don’t let that make it hard for you to be a professional and meet with other professionals.

        1. Koko*

          Yep, at my last gig it was a small shop – we had a female CEO + two females and one male working under her. Whenever more than one of the non-CEO three of us traveled somewhere it was pretty common for us to have dinner together at least one of the nights so we could debrief today/strategize tomorrow, or just blow off steam. It never occurred to me that doing so with my male coworker was any less appropriate than doing so with my female coworker. It just seemed like the thing to do with a coworker when out of town. We were all around the same age – late 20s/early 30s.

      2. paul*

        As a middle aged guy it’s something I’m (possibly over) aware of myself. Only male in a group with 2-3 women? That’s fine. Me and one woman alone? I’d be leery of it just because of the possibility for people misreading it.

    2. AthenaC*

      I’m with gold digger. I work in a field where men and women work together interchangeably, and there is plenty of travel and working late involved. Being 1:1 with a male colleague / mentor is a really common thing for me and every other woman I work with. It’s even more common for female partners who will have lunch / dinner 1:1 with male client contacts.

      I think you’re overthinking it. I sincerely doubt that anyone else perceives these interactions as problematic.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Although I agree with golddigger, AthenaC and Artemesia that most functional humans will not see 1-on-1 dinner as scandalous, I have (very recently) been the younger female coworker who people gossiped about for getting dinner/a happy hour drink with a professional male colleague so we could discuss professional things. Thankfully, most people I run into are not so horrid as to spread rumors about people based on zero evidence.

      But it still happens, and I think the easiest way to deal with it is as you’ve described. I wouldn’t worry about optics so much, but do your one-on-ones “out in the open” and be transparent about it. It can help. I’m sorry this is something you have to think about on top of your normal job.

    4. Dr. Doll*

      Heh. One time I had dinner with my grandboss at a conference. He was a Pompous Ass. He selected a crazy expensive restaurant (thanks, guy who makes 4X my salary), and was clearly out to impress his young padawan, casting a critical eye over the menu and suggesting this and that from his encyclopedic knowledge of wine pairings and all-that-jazz.

      I was about three times better at my job than he was at his, so I was nastily gratified to find out a couple of years after I left that he had “resigned,” and meanwhile…I have HIS job now at a different institution, where I am Kicking It.

      I decided I would never go out to dinner again with anyone I didn’t want to, no matter who the hell they were.

  8. Madeline Wuntch*

    Although, regarding Allison’s thought experiment: It’s not…MUCH better or more clear when it’s an older guy texting and trying to be friends with a young male. It is a different problem that sexual harassment, and I am a young female, but I know my boss has ALSO been overly friendly with young men, he just has bad boundaries! Although, the worst part is, that it’s STILL worse for women, even when he does it in an equal opportunity way. Because, as my coworkers recently told me, four years later, they thought we were dating! And I could tell, that it was weird and that other people in the office noticed but I didn’t know what to do when he was REALLY JUST being friendly and he was also doing it to young men who worked for him.

    Also, don’t feel bad for feeling like you “made a hash” of it. I cannot talk about anything like this ever (like, for instance, literally right now) without feeling defensive and like I should preemptively explain, without really having the words or a good explanation – like, it’s half that other people 100% WILL be like “Why did you let it get to that point, why did you agree to do that, you’re a strong person, why why why?” and half that, yeah you wish there was something stress and consequence free that you could’ve done and it feels like maybe, if you were smarter, you’d have figured out how to thread that needle and it would never have been a problem.

    1. Willow*

      Not to mention it can be sexual with a younger man. This happened to my dad when he was in his early twenties and trying to break into the business. Went for a “networking” dinner with an older guy who bought him lots of expensive sushi and drinks. He was completely oblivious and didn’t realize until much later why the guy seemed disappointed and no professional opportunities materialized.

  9. animaniactoo*

    If I said anything, it would be along the lines of “I appreciate your interest, but wanted to check in with you if there’s something I’m missing about opportunity deadlines. I’m curious because this is a lot more contact or invites than I usually get for professional networking and things like that, so I want to make sure I’m not missing something.”

    The implicit message is that you’re taking him at face value that his interest in you is professional, you’re noting something odd from that perspective, and you’re only interested in exploring it from that perspective.

    If he responds by saying anything along the lines of that he “just really likes you and would like to hang out with you more as friends”, I would put that off as “That’s cool, but if you don’t mind – let’s keep this just as work for now. I tend to move to a friend space more slowly/prefer to keep work and friendships fairly separate (whatever works for you)”. Thereby making it clear that you appreciate him as a work and professional contact, but don’t want to move out of that realm and the excessive contact is not welcomed over and above that. Or even for that unless there’s some sort of immediate opportunity.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Note, this is the most face-saving out you can possibly give him if there is something more (and I trust your gut here), and a completely reasonable boundary if he’s on the up and up.

      If he does not react well to this kind of thing – it was going to blow one way or the other. The only question is when. Now if you need it to be at the end or towards the end of the project, you may not want to risk even this much. Weigh your options and what you know of him/how likely it is your company will believe him, etc.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I really like this script/framework. If he’s going to go for plausible deniability, OP can certainly counter with “genuine, work-related professionalism.”

    2. Fictional Butt*

      Yeah, I think I’d be tempted to just ask him what the deal was, framing it as “I want to work with you on this project but I’m not available for all these extra meetings, and I’m not really sure why we’re having them.” It seems like that would give OP the option to continue working with him if he stopped being a creep, but would also subtly signal that she knew he was abusing her time. (Of course, in reality, I probably wouldn’t have the guts to actually address it.)

  10. Buffy*

    I appreciate Alison taking this question on. It’s a tricky situation for sure, and I think answering (even when I assume it would be easier to publish softball questions) highlights these issues to readers who aren’t necessarily aware they exist?

    1. Tangerina Warbleworth*

      Yes, especially when we discuss it like civilized adults as we’re doing here. No one her is screaming that all old men are awful or that young women should never have dinner alone with male colleagues because of Victorian optics. It’s a valid issue with many different sides.

  11. rozin*

    Definitely agree with not meeting up anymore for dinner since his intentions are probably dubious (Trust your gut! It’s designed to notice when something’s “off.”). But if you’re dealing with him face-to-face and he gets all up in your space, a technique I’ve found to be really effective in getting guys (and gals, though that’s less often) to back off without saying a word is altering my body language.

    If someone is encroaching on your space, the first instinct for most is to back away, but that usually results in the other person pushing even more into your space. Instead go the opposite route and spread out and take up more masculine body language (including man-spreading, though I don’t recommend that technique in a dress). Be confident and unwilling to back down (or at least fake it). Since these losers are looking for “easy prey” they usually back down without any need for any verbal confrontation.

    I can’t guarantee that it’ll work for you, but it’s done wonders for me in getting people (particularly pushy guys) to back away and leave me be when I don’t want to deal with them.

    1. Clever Name*

      Yep. I’ve also found that just imagining myself as being bigger and powerful, and imagining a “shield” or bubble that surrounds me can get people who are too close to physically back off, which is kind of cool.

    2. Marillenbaum*

      That sounds like the advice I was given when I felt too intimidated to go into the weight room at my gym. My friend was a Div I football player–about 6’4” and massive–and told me to walk in there like I was as tall and broad as he was, grab my eight-pound weights, and generally take up space. I’ve started using it for going into any male-dominated space, to just assume that confidence and right to take up room. I’ve been surprised by how well it works.

      1. Chinook*

        ” I’ve started using it for going into any male-dominated space, to just assume that confidence and right to take up room. I’ve been surprised by how well it works.”

        I think you hit the nail on the head about why women often don’t succeed in this places – we usually aren’t socialized to embrace our right to take up space. Men seem to be (and I don’t know how they are taught this either). Once you throw your shoulders back, raise your head up and walk with purpose, the non-jerks will treat you like you should be there (and the jerks will out themselves by their reactions).

        If someone needs a visualization, imagine you are like the hero Vixen or Amaya – you have the ability to project the essence of any animal around your body. I mean, nobody messes with a silver-back gorilla when it walks into a room, right?

        1. Chatterby*

          I greatly recommend the “Murder Walk”.
          When asked how to walk like a powerful and authoritative Queen, actor Charlize Theron replied that the tricks are to stand tall with good posture, keep your core strong, then think “MURDER” and go.
          People part like the Red Sea.

  12. k*

    If you don’t want to decline all of his invitations for the sake of preserving the networking contacts, you could try only accepting the ones that you can turn into group situations instead of one-on-one outings. If he says “Let’s grab drinks and talk about XYZ” you say “Let’s grab Fergus too because I’m interested in his take/he’s an expert in that/he mentioned liking drinks once.” If he’s trying to play it like his intentions are purely professional, he won’t have many valid reasons to push back. If he does say “Let’s just keep it us for whatever vague reason I’m giving”, you can always make up some last minute reason why you’ll have to skip this one. He’ll likely know it’s an excuse, but it sends the message that you aren’t interested without you actually having to say it.

  13. Observer*

    Allison, I think you re giving creeps like this too much credit when you say they “don’t realize” the extent of the effect they have. Best case, they know and don’t care. Worst case they know and use it.

    1. Jiggs*

      I think it’s somewhere in the middle – they just don’t even think about it. This kind of person is concerned with their own needs to the point where I find it very plausible they never consider any potential impact on their target.

      1. Starbuck*

        Yeah, but based on comments OP left in the thread, it sounds pretty clear this guy knew exactly what he was doing- after continuing to refuse his invites, she was removed from the project. Ugh. Sounds like it ended up working out well for OP despite that, but what a drag.

    2. Mookie*

      I can vouch for this, at least in academia. I was “out” as a graduate student in a really big way (basically blinking neon signs aimed at straight male colleagues and faculty not to hit on me or presume I could be emotionally or sexually manipulated into doing unpaid work for them) after five years of being harassed by faculty and fellow students as an undergraduate in a liberal arts program, and became chummy with an associate professor, not my advisor nor on my committee, who mistakenly thought I was One of the Boys or, being a lesbian, not really female. He was young, mild-mannered and soft-spoken in public, and regarded as handsome and guileless enough that he could fall victim to ‘harridans’ and other assorted female bogeys that seem to haunt the imaginations/sexual fantasies of academic men. After six months’s normal friendship, the mask slipped off and he more or less admitted that he viewed arsing around with women’s professional reputations — either initiating quid pro quo affairs with them or broadly insinuating he had in order to cast doubt on their abilities — as a fun game but also a kind of duty. Women didn’t belong in our field*, he reckoned and, viewing the world as a zero-sum situation, felt they’d gained too much ground as it was.

      *Classics. Classics. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for women in STEM. Crikey.

      1. Mookie*

        Though I will say I’d safely bet most predators like this aren’t as conscious of what they’re doing, are not actively out to sabotage someone’s career, just parlay it into sex, and that it takes a while for them to realize that by only providing access, assistance, and opportunities to women they want to sleep with, they are making that access contingent upon a woman sacrificing her own personal preferences to fulfill these dudes’s fantasies. And that this takes place, almost invariably, in a field or industry where women are underrepresented, which puts even more pressure on ambitious women to placate men with power in order to gain even a modest foothold, one that mediocre men occupy regularly without having to service anyone with sexual ‘favors.’

  14. c*

    Thank you for this response!! Practically every woman my age I know has a story like this or very similar. LW, you did nothing wrong. He is being inappropriate.

  15. Jeanne*

    You’ve been fine so far. Keep declining his invitations. Don’t get into the excuses war. You say I’m working/I’m busy/I have a family thing. Then he tries to argue you out of it. Just say you are unable to have dinner with him. Now I understand you think you need him as a professional contact, but you don’t. I’m sure his coworkers know all about him. If you get a new job by riding on his coattails, it could taint you too. If you decide to move on, apply for jobs, look for new networking, etc. You don’t need him.

    1. FlibbertyG*

      I agree, OP unfortunately I think you’re about to get extremely busy with unspecified projects. Hopefully if your answers are always boring he will lose interest. Sad to say I’ve had to do this more than once, I’d say it has about a 70% chance of success – BUT, if he gets more aggressive, that’s also more actionable for you.

  16. FlibbertyG*

    Been there so many times, bought the T shirt. It sucks that this is still happening today, in 2017. I get infuriated thinking how many of my male colleagues have literally never had to consider this intricate dance that women have to do … but pretty much every female colleague has a story like this. And they wonder why we struggle to get ahead.

          1. seejay*

            My mom’s always citing examples of medical conditions from Chicago Med and then freaking out over possible crime scenarios from police procedurals she watches on TV and they’re *so* ridiculous, I just have to sigh and eyeroll. Movies and tv shows are not good examples of real life and citing them as evidence looks silly at best. Sure they have some basis on real situations but they’re so overly dramaticized and blown out of proportion, it’s like trying to argue that “50 Shades of Grey” is a good example of healthy romance or kink. Just don’t go there.

            and you’re welcome for the LOL. ^_^

            1. Mookie*

              I mean, there’s a reason why people have to cite fiction to justify the lie that Both Sides Do It. Nope. If you have to resort to bunny-boilers, you’re being dishonest about how gendered the problem is.

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              It’s like the year that everyone on med shows developed rare brain tumors—my mom was convinced she had one. She did not; we’re glad that’s the case.

              1. seejay*

                oh god, I mentioned an issue I was having a few months ago and my mom mentioned this case she saw on Chicago Med and maybe I should look into it, something called “crazy cat lady disease”, because I have three cats and maybe it might be related to it, since I had “some of the symptoms”. To humour her, I looked it up. It was this really far out strange case that a script writer had dug up and blown way out of proportion relating to toxoplasmosis poisoning, which there’s no clear evidence of (basically, the toxoplasmosis parasite isn’t dangerous to healthy people unless you’re pregnant and they need a lot more further studies and the tv show just ran with weak studies and urban legends and stereotypes for a storyline).

                I told her to stop getting medical diagnoses off the tv, or at the very least, trying to be helpful with her bunk.

  17. Artemesia*

    So been there done that in my younger days. I didn’t have the OP’s great radar and got into a couple of very awkward situations when I mistook interest in working with me for interest in working me over. Mostly it just meant closing a door as many men will take a brush off well. The big name in my field whose interest involved trying to rip my blouse off, of course could not be worked with further and I had to change my dissertation topic entirely since he was the guru in the field.

    It is grossly unfair when powerful men mix their predatory selves with mentorship and work and it penalizes women in many fields. Sorry this guy put himself in this category.

  18. Tableau Wizard*

    I just wish there were more consequences for him. The LW mentioned that she’s going to face negative professional outcomes by losing him as a professional contact, but he’s probably not losing out on anything and that just feels wrong. I know that this is just “how it is”, but I’m just here to add one more voice to the “but it sucks” chorus.

    1. Chinook*

      I agree that it sucks and it is a shame that the professional contact won’t suffer from this type of behavior, but if the OP can follow AAM’s advice, this may have advantages for her in the long run. After all, nothing happens in a vacuum and I bet that there are other professionals that know the jerk’s track record and will probably notice when the LW walks away from this impressive contact, especially if she does so unscathed by him. That type of professionalism and character doesn’t go unnoticed and will probably benefit her more in the long run than anything the jerk could do for her now (which, if he is just playing her, is probably not much since he obviously doesn’t take her seriously).

  19. Anonymoose*

    Can I just get an AMEN on that last paragraph?? It reminded me of my last job in which I had someone who was older, had more power, married, and constantly hit on me at work (in those instances I was able to laugh these off socially and redirect the convos). He finally cornered me in a supply closet during a work party and I had to give him the big ‘back off’ chat and then he basically hated me for the remainder of my time there and refused to work with me like a giant baby.

    1. Anonymoose*

      No, I didn’t report him to HR because he didn’t make my life or career difficult after that – it was just like I didn’t exist to him anymore which was totally fine with me

  20. KR*

    OP, a good older male mentor does not act in a way that makes someone feel like this or alters their behavior so you know they are not a Creep. Trust your gut, don’t be afraid to tell him you are busy and can’t meet with him at this time, and remember this won’t be your last chance in the world to get a great network contact or work on a great project.
    If you are still interested in the project, a good line might be “My evenings are pretty full but I would be willing to come by your office during the day and talk about this project.”

  21. Jiggs*

    UGH, I feel for OP. This comes up for me a lot. I would say in most networking situations there’s at least one dude who is like “now is the time to make my move!” The Networking Casanova is *really* into plausible deniability, repeated invites, and generally making you uncomfortable. My advice:

    1) If it feels weird, he’s being weird. I have many professional male contacts who I feel completely comfortable with and never suspect any ulterior motive whatsoever. We manage to joke and have an informal and fun relationship without me ever feeling a whisper of “ooooh that was uncool”. So trust your instincts.

    2) Alison is completely correct that that plausible deniability works for you too. After all, if he’s not hitting on you, you have carte blanche to interpret his every move as professional interest. Become the queen of the redirect to a professional topic. “That’s nice/tough/interesting. So about Project X…”

    3) If you feel like you really MUST connect with him for some reason (or you need his goodwill for X more weeks/months/until something happens on the promotion front and he’s starting to be a whiny dillhole), redirect to a mid-day coffee and set a time limit. “I’m just really busy right now, but I could do a coffee at 1pm on X day!” could be a good script. Then because you’re back to work you can wrap it up in 30 minutes.

    4) Drop him like a hot potato as soon as possible. The Networking Casanova has a disease and it’s not curable. Recognize that he’s not actually a good contact – someone who wants something from you the one who is bad at networking, not you.

  22. Insufficient Data (OP)*

    Thanks Alison and everyone for their kind comments.

    It’s a little depressing from the comments how common this sort of thing is. I guess I’m lucky that this was the first time from someone who could affect me professionally.

    The promotion looked really good, but once I was kicked off negotiations and projects because of this, the job was probably untenable. One of coworkers did tell me after it played out that she thought I was treated poorly and knew the company was going to lose me once it happened.

  23. Mynamehere*

    It’s not just would-be mentors.

    I was liaison and contact point for a Big International Guest and had been e-mailing him for months to make travel arrangements, fix programme slots, check food allergies and so on.

    The guy arrived and was very nice, did his job and was well received. No problems, professional, friendly and seemingly safe.

    On the last night of the conference, we were walking from the conference venue to our hotel, and he asked me to come up to his room to have some “fun”. I was surprised and didn’t know how to react, and just pretended I hadn’t heard anything: “Your flight tomorrow is at 10? You should probably leave around 7.30, I think the hotel serves breakfast from 7. ” By then we were back at the hotel, and I just hung back and made certain I did not get into the lift with him – just waved and wished him a safe journey to his home country.

    The next day I mentioned it to my boss, twenty years older than me (like the guest speaker) and male. He assured me that I’d just misunderstood, and that the guest speaker just wasn’t like that.

    Once the project was over, I stopped working with that boss, but for the next ten years, at least once a year, he joked about it when we happened to run into each other or were at meetings together: “So, Mynamehere, have you had anyone flirt with you lately, ha-ha-ha?”

  24. Chatterby*

    1) Document EVERYTHING
    2) Play completely oblivious until you no longer can’t, at which time reply that whatever his request is is “impossible.” If he’s an a$$ about it, tack on a “I am so glad we’re both professional enough not to let this harm each other’s careers as we continue on this project together. HR can get quite messy.” Inform a discrete coworker or supervisor what happened for documentation purposes. Obtain an employment lawyer and go to HR if (when) any retaliation occurs.
    2b) If he doesn’t catch on to the refused invitations, but also never confronts you with demands (pretty common), this may be the time to bring up Fake Army Boyfriend or Invented Peace Corp Sweetheart. You know, the absurdly perfect dream guy who had been away, but is now back on leave, which is why no one has heard of him, and you are totally in love with each other and happy, happy, happy. Office jerk may not respect you or his own relationship vows, but may back off once he hears you’re “taken” by a guy he can’t compete with, which has the extra benefit of allowing him to save face over a direct refusal.
    3) Job hunt as necessary.

  25. amy*

    This is why I eventually became very loud and open and direct about such things as soon as they happened.

    These guy have no intention of giving you a real place in anything but their beds. Or somebody else’ bed, more likely. And you are the one who will lose if you’re polite or try to find something useful in there. You can also be sure you’re just one of dozens or hundreds he’s done this to.

    If you are loud and plain and document everything and bring it to your supervisors and his, that’s the equivalent of going after the playground bully. You will earn respect. You may not get or keep the job. But the odds that they will fuck with you again like that go way down. You may also, incidentally, win big.

    Next time, write it down and report it.

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