my boss is having sex in the office

A reader writes:

My first job out of college started as a dream: a hip tech startup in Los Angeles with a majority female team and an express mission of empowering women on social media. Now that I’ve been here almost a year, the cracks are starting to show, specifically with my boss. She’s C-level, and the “female face” of our company to investors, clients, etc., and while she pitches the company as empowerment-based, she’s anything but empowering to her employees and has put us all in a very uncomfortable situation.

She frequently cheats on her live-in boyfriend with other men in the office at night, often leaving evidence for us to discover in the morning. Just last week she started making out with several men in front of my coworker while repping our company at a networking event. Everyone in the office knows, but I feel especially guilty because her boyfriend has my role in another company and has served as a mentor-esque figure for me in the past.

Maybe this is just my Catholic guilt showing, but the whole situation makes me very uncomfortable. I can hardly stand to look at her, let alone her boyfriend. Knowing all of this information about her has made it hard to take her seriously as my boss and be comfortable and successful in the office. She plays it off like this is normal behavior in tech and that I would totally get it if I were older and more experienced, but if that’s the case maybe I need to be in a whole other industry.

Do I need to quit my job? Do I tell her boyfriend? Is this normal and I’m just totally overreacting? Any advice would be greatly appreciated so my sleep schedule can return to semi-normalcy.

Nope, this is not normal! Not in tech and not anywhere else. Certainly there are people in every industry who cheat on their significant others, but they don’t typically let their entire office know about it. And if they’re having sex in their office, they’re at least generally more discreet. (And leaving evidence behind?! I don’t even want to speculate on what that means.)

Normally, of course, your boss’s sex life and relationship choices would be none of your business. And if you’d stumbled on this information accidentally, I’d tell you to try to wipe it from your mind and pretend you didn’t know. I’d also point out that there might be context you weren’t aware of, like that her relationship was an open one. And who knows, maybe that’s the case here.

But it’s hard to consider this none of your business when your boss keeps making it your business by being so flagrant about it. It’s hard not to notice when your boss is making out with multiple people at a business event. And it’s even harder to ignore when she’s talking about it so openly.

The thing that matters here is: this stuff just doesn’t belong at work. Even if your boss is in an ethical non-monogamous relationship where all parties involved are fully informed and consenting, she’s making her sexual choices a focus of your workplace in a way that’s 100 percent inappropriate. In fact, even if she were single — and thus you weren’t worried about the cheating aspect of this — it would still be inappropriate for her colleagues to know this much about her sex life (let alone that some of that sex is apparently happening in the building where you work).

You just can’t inflict that on people at work. And you especially can’t inflict it on people who work for you, since the power dynamics of boss/employee relationships mean that people may feel uncomfortable and unable to speak up and say “Hey, I don’t want to hear about this.”

That said … it’s worth thinking about whether gender is playing into how you and others perceive this. To be clear, this behavior would be inappropriate from anyone, man or woman — but sometimes women are condemned more strongly for it than men would be. Some of that is rooted in old sexist tropes, of course. But sometimes there’s another thing at play, too: Sometimes we unfairly expect the female leaders in our offices to be perfect models of professionalism and to meet a standard that we don’t hold their male counterparts to, because at some level we figure that if they’re perfectly polished and appropriate and skilled, the path will be eased for other women. In other words, we expect senior professional women to represent all women in a way that we don’t expect men to — and that’s an unfair burden to place on women (particularly on top of other burdens of sexism they’re already shouldering).

That’s not to say your boss isn’t being wildly inappropriate. She is! But be sure you’re using a gender-neutral lens when you think about her behavior, and take a hard look at any feelings you might have about how she’s representing women in general in your office. (If you have them, that is. Maybe you don’t! But it’s common enough that it’s worth flagging.)

As for what you should actually do here … What do you want to do? Given the power dynamics at play, it’s okay to discard any worries about what you might or might not be obligated to do and just focus on what you’re comfortable with.

That’s particularly true when it comes to telling her boyfriend what’s going on. Certainly if you feel ethically compelled to do that, you can — but you’re not obligated to, and you’re not a bad person if you choose not to. This is your boss, and presumably you could jeopardize your job if you out her to her boyfriend. You are not required to jeopardize your livelihood in an effort to make this right.

That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t other things you can do. You’re absolutely allowed to say to your boss, “This makes me uncomfortable to hear about, especially since I know Ryan. I would rather not hear this kind of thing!” She may think you’re being overly delicate, but you can make this request and stick to it.

You also asked if you need to quit your job. The answer to that is: Only if you want to. You might decide that you have so little respect for your boundary-violating boss that it does make sense to move on. Or you might decide that, while gross, the situation doesn’t rise to that level.

But you’re not overreacting, and you don’t need to worry that you’ll encounter this issue at all future jobs. This is just one weird boss out of control, not a corporate trend or a staple of work life.

I originally answered this letter at New York Magazine.

{ 377 comments… read them below }

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Even better: it’s originally from Stanley Kubrick! Which just raises more questions that Google did not answer: is it from a movie? Which one? Was it a promo photo?

          1. Jennifer Thneed*

            I’m trying to compose a narrative for this image. I mean WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND STORY for ending at this vignette?

  1. Snark*

    “Do I need to quit my job? Do I tell her boyfriend? Is this normal and I’m just totally overreacting? Any advice would be greatly appreciated so my sleep schedule can return to semi-normalcy.”

    If you feel like you need to it’s probably not a bad idea, absolutely not, definitely not normal but you might be overreacting a bit, and my advice is to take full advantage of the opportunity to ignore something that’s really not your problem or your responsibility.

    1. Traffic_Spiral*

      Yeah, it’s not “normal” but “normal” and “your problem” are two separate issues. A thing can be both abnormal and not your problem. I’d say start looking if it really makes you uncomfortable or if the guy’s your friend and you don’t want to be involved in helping her cheat on him, but if it doesn’t directly affect your work you really can just ignore it.

      1. Snark*

        That said! If you can’t work with this person, and she makes it so uncomfortable for you that you feel alienated and creeped out, by all means hie thee to another job! But this is just not your situation to resolve, and not yours to insert yourself into. You can decline to engage in discussion on the topic of her escapades, ignore the stanky office in the morning, and keep your head down – if you wish.

      2. nep*

        This is such a great thing to keep in mind–in this and I’m sure other situations: ‘abnormal’ and ‘my problem’ are two separate things. Some things are both, but not all things I find abnormal need to be addressed by me.

      3. Annoyed*

        I’d like to just throw out that not getting all up in the middle of others’ relationships, IOW minding one’s own business, isn’t “helping” one partner “cheat.”

        I know you didn’t say that. I am only putting it out there because it seems that too many feel “obligated” to say something when it’s really not their place or business.

        Regarding this letter (or any relationship really) the boss could be in a totally consensual, agreed upon, open relationship. LW doesnt know as do most not know the minutiae if others’s lives.

        1. Susana*

          EXACTLY. Other people’s relationships, or relationship behavior, is not your business. Now, your relationship with your boss IS your business, and if her behavior makes you uncomfortable you can raise with her or leave. But otherwise – butt out. I’m consistently amazed at how many people think it’s their place to police other people’s marriages or relationships.

          1. MatKnifeNinja*

            If I got $500 dollars for coworker I knew, who cheated with someone at work, my niece would have a great college fund by now. (large university hospital setting)

            The joys of tracking down surgeon who also had 4 friends with benefits listed as contact numbers.

            Or the ever popular *I’m not sure who the baby daddy/momma is.”

            Kind of quaint someone is in a foam over this.

            1. President Porpoise*

              I… would hope someone knows who the baby momma is. I mean, giving birth is pretty unforgettable.

          2. Lynn Penney*

            The nuance for me is that her boss’s live-in is someone who is a mentor to her in her work. To me, this is a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation rather than a matter of wanting to police relationships. I think OP need to assess which person will likely be more important to her career development and make her choices from here. With the caveat that it is no guarantee that the mentor would want to hear about this at all.

            1. Susana*

              Right, on whether mentor would want to know this. I wold be upset if my partner were having sex with another person, but I also don’t think i’s anyone’s place to tell me about it. This isn;t a legal situation, where an employee is, say, embezzling and you let the boss know. You can be personally offended by someone’s behavior in his/her private life, but that doesn’t give you the right – let alone the obligation- to tell the alleged victim. Who, btw, may not see him/herself as a victim.

        2. Traffic_Spiral*

          “minding one’s own business, isn’t “helping” one partner “cheat.””
          It can very soon become that if you interact with the other person, though.

          “Hey, where’s my girlfriend?” “Oh she’s… not banging a guy in the supply closet, she’s on a call with a supplier.”

          “Hi, I thought I’d drop by the office and surprise her with flowers, is she in?” “Yes, but don’t go in! She’s in a conference call and definitely not banging someone in there – wait out here and I’ll send her a text to figure out when she’s free.”

          “Hey, so how was that fundraiser you and my girlfriend went to last night?” “Fundraiser? Yes, we both definitely did and I definitely did not spend the night at home because there wasn’t a fundraiser and your girlfriend was lying to you about where she was.”

          1. Susana*

            No – no one says you have to lie for anyone. And I doubt mentor constantly refers to boss as his girlfriend to boss’s staff. You say, she’s in her office. or I don’t know, or whatever. If she were filing her nails in her office, would you add that detail? No. Now, if he walks in on her having sex, well, that’s her problem. Don’t cover for her, but don’t out her either.

    2. Lynca*

      Not that I disagree with the core of what you’ve said however if there’s evidence of the escapades around the office I don’t think they’re overreacting. That’s pretty OMG WTF.

      1. Snark*

        I mentioned that mostly because they implied they were losing sleep. I could find undergarments hanging off the corner of my monitor and still sleep like a baby. (I’d probably have to drink heavily to get there, but)

        1. Lynca*

          Well just don’t fault those of us that would need brain bleach to get that image out of our heads. The making out I could handle, the cheating nbd, but not the apparently rampant office sexcapades. Just noooooo.

          1. Snark*

            Wouldn’t dream of it. And if I slip on a puddle of lube or whatever, I WILL be maxing out my workman’s comp claim.

            1. Adlib*

              Just thinking how hilarious this would be to see on the incident reporting software that I manage.

              1. Jadelyn*

                I’m seeing it from the HR perspective. I get a call from an employee saying they slipped and fell and injured themselves, so they need to report the incident and get workers comp on it. Okay. And I ask what happened, both for the report and so that I know if I need to have facilities go out and fix some kind of hazard.

                “Oh, I was going into Lisa’s office and slipped on some lube.”

                “Wait…what kind of lube are we talking here?” [while desperately hoping there was, for some random reason, machine oil or parts lubricant in the office that might have spilled]

                “Well, I didn’t see the bottle, but she told us in a meeting last week that she prefers Sliquid, so I’d assume that’s what it was.”

                1. Drew*

                  You just got your revenge for the Ivanova note the other day. I had to explain to my officemate why I was stifling laughter and tears were pooling in my eyes.

                2. Glowcat*

                  I do care about workplace safety, but I’m really laughing loud at this thread. I knew we were going to have some good comments on this.

                3. RJ the Newbie*

                  This plus a clementine equals me choking to death of pure laughter. And I regret nothing.

              2. Spoooons*

                Well, you never know. An HSE colleague told me a story some time ago where he had something along those lines.
                In his previous company someone had needed to do some work in the ceiling space, so moved a ceiling tile and was hit on the head – by a falling sex toy! I am given to understand this was quite a … large/long toy (!!!) and thus hit hard enough that a first aider was called, thus making it a reportable incident. No-one claimed the toy….

                1. Snark*

                  “Come quick! There’s been an accident.”

                  “What happened?”

                  “Guy got hit on the head by a falling sex toy.”


                2. Spoooons*

                  Jadelyn, it was in an office on an Armed Forces base. The assumption was that someone hid it up there in a hurry to avoid some sort of inspection, and either forgot or never had the nerve to go back for it.

                3. Specialk9*

                  I mean, for it to have actually hurt someone, I’d expect it to be motorized, like the one in Borat. Which is just a breathtaking mental image for an office.

                  Yeah clearly *I* wasn’t invited to the Duck Club.

            2. Foreign Octopus*

              Jesus, Snark.

              Here I am, eating my dinner, happily reading the comments and then I come across “puddle of lube”.

              I choked (and no one dare to make a sexual joke about it! Not whilst I’m eating!)

              1. Annoyed*

                Should I not mention the popsicle I’m sucking into oblivion at the moment then?

                Hey…it’s hot here!

                Oh wow…from the right angle even that sentence sounds dirty.

                I give.

            3. MatKnifeNinja*


              Or can of half used Crisco tossed to the side.

              I wouldn’t be high fiving good jobbing empty cans of whipped cream and spent prophylactics tossed here and there all over my work space. No one gets that high/drunk that they can’t tidy up after shenanigans.

              I really don’t want to break out the Clorox Wipes before I start work.

        2. samiratou*

          It sounds to me that the LW losing sleep is not about seeing evidence of sex, but trying to reconcile the behavior with a) the public face the founder puts on about the company and b) loss of respect for her boss because of that behavior.

          I don’t consider myself super prudish, but I’d lose respect for a boss that had sex in the office and made out with people at a networking event (FFS!), and while you could say the ability to have sex wherever & whenever you want is empowering, I don’t think that’s quite what the company is putting forth as empowerment.

          1. Breda*

            Yeah, if I worked for a company where the CEO regularly made out with multiple people at networking events (!!!!!!), I’d also be worried about people in the industry losing respect for the company and me by association.

            1. Emily K*

              Yeah, I’m like, pretty sexually liberal, have been in poly relationships, but I did a major spit take at “making out with multiple men while repping the company at a networking event.”

              I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place to make out with multiple men, but in public while on the clock is almost never one of them, aside from a few specific jobs. I’m gobsmacked that she’s implying this is normal tech sector behavior? Granted, I don’t know the industry beyond what I read in the sexual harassment scandal headlines, but I…would not have expected that to be the case.

              1. EmKay*

                “I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place to make out with multiple men”

                God bless you :)

          2. Annoyed*


            Question though. You said “a boss.” So would you feel the same level of disrespect for a male boss?

            I think we all would like to say “of course.” But even my own “boys need to just get out of the way so that women can fix their fk ups (i.e. the world) because they onviously have sucked at being in charge” self has an immediate, knee jerk, socially programmed response.

            It makes me look more acceptingly at males who engage in this kind of stuff and I have to jerk myself up and say “NO(!!!) that’s the patriarchy talking.”

            Not judging you or trying to “start something”…at all. Just my academic curiosity regarding pov vis a vis gender.

            1. zora*

              ewww, yes! I mean, What??!!

              Think about that for a second, if your male CEO, (married or not) was having sex IN the office and leaving evidence for all to see, and making out with multiple women in a work event, you would think that was fine? Because, I would also think that is super gross and would make our company look ridiculous.

              Now, in a less obvious context, yes, often men who are flirty and attractive to many women are looked at approvingly by society because of ingrained ‘sexual virility’ crap we learn from patriarchy, so I can see that being a little more of a grey area. But I literally can’t think of a single person I know who would not be grossed out by a male boss broadcasting his sexual escapades in the office we are all trying to work in, or by making it look like his sex life is more important AT A WORK EVENT than focusing on his job and the business that is paying all of us.

            2. samiratou*

              “So would you feel the same level of disrespect for a male boss?”

              Yes, absolutely. Sex at work is Never OK. Making out with people at networking events is never OK.

              1. JustaTech*

                Somehow to me the making out with multiple people at the networking event is even worse than having sex at work. Like, a networking event implies a *lot* of people, at least some of whom are watching your CEO making out with people. So not only is it weird PDA, but also there’s the whole reputation thing. “X-corp’s CEO was making out with/sexually harassing people at the llama-tech networking event. Do you think everyone there is like that?”
                Ick ick ick.

            3. Specialk9*

              It’s worth asking that question. The whole point of impact bias is that all of us who think we’re not biased are actually totally biased, and we don’t have much option except to examine ourselves critically. So nice way to start that internal brain check.

              Personally, I have had a pervert male boss, and it was icky, and he did nothing this bad. She really is beyond the pale.

            4. Grindr*

              I’d judge a man more strongly than a woman but that’s just my knee jerk reaction thinking that the man is an asshole and putting myself in the position of their girlfriend/wife/friend with benefits who wants more. A woman who does this might or might not be judged by me, depending on other details. OP’s boss’s behaviors is outrageous of course.

          3. zora*

            I know you’re saying it tongue in cheek, but I just want to point out that non-consensually involving others (coworkers or strangers) in your sex life is not empowering at all, it’s gross. It doesn’t make it ‘feminist’ just because it’s like “oh I can express myself sexually without being all oppressed by Patriarchy”.

        3. Specialk9*

          If I found undergarments on my monitor, I’d pull out the bleach wipes and inspect my chair etc carefully before touching or sitting. Blergh.

        1. JustaTech*

          The janitor at my SO’s last company once complained vigorously about having to clean up after the accounting firm next door’s holiday party which, based on his complaints, had turned into an orgy that no one could be bothered to clean up from.

          Seriously, why can’t people have even the tiniest margin of respect for the other people who use a space and pick up/wipe up? It’s just the height of rudeness.

    3. sap*

      The one exception to the don’t tell the boyfriend thing is if lw asks the boyfriend to be a reference/contact in job hunting (after they quit), and the boyfriend says something like “I’m not comfortable doing that after you quit my girlfeiend’s company after such a short tenure,” I think LW would be justified in explaining why they quit. The boyfriend has apparently been LW’s mentor, and LW shouldn’t lose that relationship to protect the privacy of a boss who leaves sex evidence out in the darn office.

  2. CatCat*

    You have every right to be in a workplace where your boss doesn’t share their sexual escapades with you (I am shuddering to think what “evidence” she is leaving around the office for the employees to find). This is wildly inappropriate and OP has every right to object. I encourage the OP to seek out other opportunities though. A boss that has normalized this kind of behavior… I would worry about retaliation for any continued objections.

    1. JokeyJules*

      +1 on this.
      I don’t care about her affairs, I just don’t want them happening in the office.

    2. RVA Cat*

      I feel bad for the employees and extra bad for the cleaning staff…. *shudder* I hope they get hazard pay.

  3. addiez*

    One point that I didn’t see in Alison’s response – the fact that this stuff is happening at a networking event makes me more likely to say yes, you should quit your job. If the CEO of a company is randomly hooking up with people at networking events (!) particularly when the company is focused on empowerment, I’d imagine that this might reflect on the company and I’d be worried about its long-term impression.

    1. Nita*

      Very true. It doesn’t reflect well on the CEO’s judgement, and if she’s using the office or the company events to hit on unwilling participants (it’s possible – especially as she’s the boss) she may end up with harassment charges. This may not be a good company to make long-term plans with. It also normalizes inappropriate office behavior for others, which may eventually trickle down to affect many people in the office.

      Other than that… no, OP has no obligation to quit the job, tell the boyfriend, or anything like that. I do hope they’re able to leave soon, though, if only for their mental health.

      1. nep*

        Right–not obligated, of course. But if the positive vibe and idea of empowerment were a pull to this job, this all might have you doing some soul-searching. Only you (LW) can make that call as to whether this workplace hits at your values in a way that becomes untenable.

    2. Anon today*

      Yes. Regardless of personal feelings on infidelity, making out with people at a networking event is not professional. Her personal life is her business, but her professional life is the company’s business.

      1. Specialk9*

        This right here.

        This is such bizarre spiral-out-of-control behavior that I kind of hope she has a reason. (Like Charlie Sheen and tiger blood, when it turns out he was processing having HIV, which at least is context. Or like my family member when he started drinking secretly again.)

        But yeah, this is not good. Professionals don’t make out with anyone at work, especially not at official events. Heck, even cheek kisses aren’t really kosher at official events, though it wouldn’t exactly be scandalous, just undermining of authority.

    3. AnonEMoose*

      This may be an overreaction – or maybe it isn’t. But the CEO in particular does set the tone for the company, in some ways. So I would wonder if some of the guys might assume that “Hey, the CEO’s up for it…the other women who work there must be, too!” Thus possibly leading to some uncomfortable situations for the OP.

      Again, this is not a thing that’s guaranteed to happen, but it does seem like a possibility. Especially as word gets around – tech is at least as gossipy as most industries, and possibly more than some.

      OP, I don’t think you’re obligated to anything other than what you feel is best for you, here. If you feel it’s best to start looking now, then do that, and I’m sure Alison and/or the comments section would be happy to help you come up with language to explain why you’re looking. If you think it’s best to ignore it (as much as you can) and stick it out for a year or two, that’s also a valid option. The good news if you do decide to leave is that people aren’t expected to stay in positions as long in tech, so leaving after a year won’t seem odd.

      I would lean toward not telling the boyfriend, because it’s possible he knows and is ok with it, and definitely possible that if he doesn’t know, he could take the metaphorical “shoot the messenger” approach. I understand the urge, especially because you know and respect him, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to involve yourself in this.

      1. Rat in the Sugar*

        Eh, I wouldn’t be too worried that the boss’s activities would make OP and her coworkers seem “up for it”–most promiscuous people I know don’t travel in packs, and I don’t think most people would assume that because a CEO is sleeping around that her employees must also behave the same way.

        However, I do think that it can reflect poorly on the company as a whole, as you’re right that the CEO sets the tone. If I see a supposedly progressive company but the CEO is a huge fratbro, that’s gonna make me think that the company isn’t actually as progressive as they say. If I see a supposedly female-empowering company like OP’s but the CEO does stuff to make their employees uncomfortable at conferences, that’s gonna make me think the company isn’t actually so empowering…

        1. Environmental Compliance*

          “most promiscuous people I know don’t travel in packs”

          I have no idea why I cracked up so much at this, but there’s now Mountain Dew on my monitor.

          1. Snark*

            What would the collective term be, then? A gaggle? A clan? An orgy?


            Definitely that last one.

            1. Jadelyn*

              [David Attenborough voice] “And here we see the orgy of promiscuous people following their migratory path down to Tijuana for the annual event researchers have dubbed “Spring Break”. Pack animals by nature, at this time each year many orgies gather to form a sort of “super pack”, which then engages in a near-constant stream of courtship and mating rituals until, exhausted, the orgies go their separate ways and return to their home territories.”

              (sorry not sorry)

              1. Gazebo Slayer*


                “A loudness of bros” or “a drunkenness of bros” is also one I’d like to see. Or, in some cases, “a misogyny of bros.”

        2. Indie*

          No but the boss seems to think OP needs coaching in this area and that hooking up is somehow sophisticated and mature. It’s not about travelling in packs but about what her boss might actually be telling people.

        3. OhNo*

          Even if most reasonable folks wouldn’t assume that OP is up for anything, that perception of the CEO, and the company, could still have some blowback on the OP and other employees there. Going straight from “CEO’s behavior” to “employee’s behavior” is a heck of a leap, but there are a lot of people who might think along the lines of CEO’s behavior -> CEO’s beliefs -> company’s beliefs -> employee’s beliefs -> employee’s behavior.

          Anyway, my point is that it’s worth keeping in mind that people in the industry may be making assumptions about the OP’s beliefs and behaviors, even if they don’t go so far as what AnonEMoose suggested. Just add that to the mental math of stay vs. quit, if nothing else.

          1. JustaTech*

            I doubt there’s that much direct, linear thought about it. It’s more, oh, you worked for Horrid LLC? Mmm… And then you have to explain that your PerfectlyNiceCorp got bought by Horrid LLC, and you hated them too and and and.

            Sometimes there is more thought and then it is a question of your judgement. As in “Oh, you worked for TerriblePerson for five years, even after everyone knew they were terrible 3 years ago?”

        4. Specialk9*

          I laughed at the Pack of Promiscuity. Nice.

          I do think it’s hard to trust a manager who has demonstrated a huge lack of professionalism or boundaries (and that’s before the gaslighting). If they’re missing out on this whole page of the rule book, and it doesn’t have that many pages, what else will they get totally wrong, or pooh-pooh and think is normal?

      2. Celeste*

        This was really my first thought. Guilt by association, I guess. The odds are against it, but it bubbled right up as a concern to me.

        I agree also with others who think this doesn’t give a good feeling about a stable company, when the CEO acts like this. I personally would want out, but of course that’s not accomplished in a snap. It’s a big decision and might take time to pull off. But hopefully the benefits of being in a workplace more aligned with the OP’s values would be worth it. I feel like it would be healthier, because this is pretty stressful. Good luck, OP!

    4. Rat in the Sugar*

      Yeah, Alison specifically mentioned that you don’t want to be viewing the boss as representing all women when she does this (after all, a male boss wouldn’t be besmirching the reps of all professional men) but at the same time, OP says that female empowerment is an explicit goal of their org. I would be a bit weirded out to come by a booth at a conference that supposedly had a female empowerment focus and then the boss is doing stuff that makes her female subordinates uncomfortable and awkward–the same way I would be skeeved out by a booth that supposedly had a general employee empowerment focus but the boss (male/female/what have you) was right there doing awkward stuff that made their subordinates squirm.
      To be clear, it’s not at all about the affairs; if I heard that the boss was sleeping around I wouldn’t really care and it wouldn’t effect my opinion of the business. It’s specifically the fact that she’s doing it in front of her subordinates in public–putting your employees in that kind of position is sure not what I’d call “empowering”.

      1. Specialk9*

        The fact that the bosses twisting the empowerment mission to apply to this behavior makes it seem a little bit predatory. Spiritual abuse happens in a lot of ways, and people generally only notice it around religion, but it can happen anywhere with a strong mission.

    5. Dr. Pepper*

      That’s what jumped out to me. No, the CEO doesn’t represent all professional women everywhere, but she does actually represent the company. She should be held to a high standard not because she’s a woman but because she’s a C-suit executive at a company that brands itself heavily on its image. Behaving so inappropriately at industry events, in the office, and in front of her employees is quite frankly unacceptable and it’s going to have consequences. Already she’s lost the respect of one of her employees and I’d be surprised if the OP was alone there. I’ve worked with some incredibly vulgar and inappropriate people and I had zero respect for them and couldn’t finish those projects soon enough. I don’t think I could work under someone like that for long.

    6. sfigato*

      Yeah, I found this troubling for a few reasons. 1, because your boss is making out with people in front of potential clients, which is not a great look regardless of gender. 2, because there is a high potential for this free-lovin’ to turn into harassment. I don’t care what people do in their personal lives with consenting adults, but it’s worrying to be so casually and carelessly mixing one’s sexual expression with one’s professional life, especially given that this is an executive. So a sexy boss who is known for hooking up with lots of people, providing those are consensual and not employees? Great. You go ladyl. Hopefully you are using protection. Sexy boss who is hooking up with people in the open while representing the company at a public event? Not good.

      1. addiez*

        C-suite isn’t CEO? What is it then? I’ve always thought C-suite included CEO, CFO, COO, etc.

        1. SavannahMiranda*

          She pitches the company. She interacts with investors and clients. She’s the media face of the entity.

          Sounds to me like she is Chief Sales Officer, or Chief Marketing Officer, or the equivalent.

      2. uranus wars*

        She might not be CEO but it does say she is the female face of the company, so whether COO, CFO, etc. she is the one who is the example of the empowerment message the company is trying to build its brand on it sounds like.

      3. Someone Else*

        The letter didn’t specify CEO, but if she’s also the c-level + public face of the company…that’s usually CEO so I see why people may have jumped to that. She might be the CIO or COO though (or C-something else but the combo of “public face” to me narrows it down a bit). Either way though she’s up there and behaving super unprofessionally.

    7. Pierce Hawthorne*

      Isn’t the point of networking to make contacts? It sounds like she’s doing quite a good job getting to know people…

    8. Annoyed*

      And what expectations others in the industry have if employees of Company lower on the food chain. I mean if the CEO does this, maybe all the “girls” are expected to/available for hookups.

    9. Loud Noises*

      Yes. When leaving the job I’m sure the OP would hate to have the interviewers look at the company listed on her resume and be like “oh yeah, that’s the company where CEO did X, Y, and Z at the networking event” and have that detract or distract from the actual work that the OP did there.

    10. TootsNYC*

      not just the impression she’s making–but her mind is clearly not on her job, so is she steering the company right?

      And can you be sure that the company’s advances, deals with other companies, etc., aren’t arriving just because she’s creating these sexual relationships? So if she leaves, or stops having these relationships, will those contracts / business links go away?

  4. Anonymosity*

    “leaving evidence for us to discover”


    If she’s making out with people in front of everyone at networking events, that could have a detrimental effect on the way the company is perceived. Did only the coworker see this, or did anyone else?

    I’m dying over “evidence.” Gah. Are we talking about used condoms in trash bins? I’d be tempted to report it up the ladder just as “Hey, something weird is going on here; somebody’s leaving evidence of sexual activity around the office and it’s a biohazard; maybe someone should look into this.”

    1. Snark*

      This is one of those things I’m glad wasn’t really specified, because it frees my mind to run free like a wild, untamed mustang through the prairies of hilarious speculation.

        1. Snark*

          Oh, it’s just the gamut of things someone with this few boundaries might do. I have a feeling she probably went right past “condoms in the trash can” but probably stopped short of “installed sex swing in office” (because facilities would probably need to sign off on that.) But that’s a wide range. You can fill it with all kinds of comedy.

          1. Autumnheart*

            To refer to an earlier discussion, this is why I don’t want anyone throwing their stuff in my trash can!

          2. Foreign Octopus*

            Well, it is a start up tech company.

            Google has slides in their offices. This company has sex swings.

            All much of a muchness really.

          3. Lolli*

            I hear 3m makes a Command hook for sex swings in the office. No need to call facilities anymore.

            1. Lolli*

              Personally, I thought of an old WKRP episode where Johnny found tiki unbrellas, cups, and appetizers in the trash can after one of Venus’ dates. So my mind went someone else.

          4. scribblingTiresias*

            Does OP work at The Place That Drives You Mad from the Twelve Tasks of Asterix? Because daaaaaang.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, I wouldn’t make out with my own [theoretical] boyfriend at a networking event, and I’ve always been in totally conventional, uninteresting, monogamous-consenting-adults relationships, just because . . . ew, that’s not what networking events are for.

      I mean, I get it–some people are exhibitionists, but I feel like, as with most things, her jollies end at leaving “evidence” [hurk] for her coworkers to find. That’s not OK, no matter how big a thrill it gives her.

            1. Detective Amy Santiago*

              Look, that happened in an episode of Friends, so it could totally happen in real life.

      1. Anon for this one*

        There are ways to indulge that kink without intruding on non-consenting adults. If just thinking about an audience wasn’t enough, there are plenty of places online where she could upload photos or a genuinely amateur video.

    3. MatKnifeNinja*

      I remember people screaming about spent Kleenex in the trash can next to them. Can you image rolling in and finding condoms and god knows what else? I’m assuming everything was put into the trash can. *shudder*

  5. President Porpoise*

    Wouldn’t this overt display of sexual stuff (mostly the leaving of evidence, eww) be indicative of a hostile work environment? Similar to say, someone leaving their vibrator on their desk all the time in a non-adult entertainment industry environment, or their porn in the work toilets? Could you try to curb it through the routes that you would usually use to report a sexual harassment issue?

    1. RVA Cat*

      My thoughts exactly.
      I also think of the Key & Peele “Homophobic” Co-worker skit where the one dude is being grossly inappropriate at work. (Too bad more people don’t come to the epiphany at the end.)

    2. Admin of Sys*

      Yes, this! Leaving obvious evidence of sexual activity in an office (that isn’t a porn studio) should count as sexual harassment, in the same way as someone watching porn in the office does.


    I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that ANY concrete evidence of boss-sex trumps gender-lens concerns and rockets straight into OMG NO territory.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s still OMG NO regardless. But what I wrote in the response was that while it’s wildly inappropriate from anyone, man or woman, it’s also true that women are often condemned more strongly for it than men would be. But 100% not okay regardless, obviously.

      1. Bend & Snap*

        I agree with this–BUT–thinking of the boss as a role model in the office, people are much more likely to go “Ignore Bob, he’s a pig” than to say that about a woman. So younger employees are looking at the female face of th is “empowered” company and potentially thinking that this is how people behave at work.

        The double standard is 100% not fair, but the boss’s behavior impacts everyone.

        1. Kate R*

          I might be misunderstanding your comment, but I took Alison’s comment to mean, how would you judge a male boss vs. a female boss? So in both instances, we’re talking about how the boss’s behavior impacts the employees. If Married Boss Bob flirts with someone at a conference, people are apt to just roll their eyes, whereas if Married Boss Roberta flirts with someone at a conference, people are likely to gossip and disapprove more harshly. In both cases, the bosses are serving as a role model to how younger employees view professional norms, and if anything, men learn they can be flirty with fewer consequences. I wasn’t sure if the Bob in your example was also a boss or just another colleague, because I do agree that the boss should be held to a higher standard (though the behavior described in this letter is not appropriate for anyone!)

        2. Belle8bete*

          I think this is changing. I think now people are more inclined to say “Bob is sexist and we need to speak up.” This is a good thing, by the way, and #metoo helped with that!

          There are some places that wouldn’t want to do this to a female boss for fear of coming across as sexist or being accused of sexism. That’s bunk and I firmly believe that will fade out with time and progress. And yes there are still places that will shrug about Bob…but soon those places will find themselves in hot water.

          I’m sure it depends where you are and the culture around you—but I do honestly believe we are collectively less accepting of this behavior from men (it’s a good trajectory)..and now men get taken to court for things like this (as they should).

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        The letter seriously sounds like the exposes that have come out about Thinx, whose CEO is the subject of a several sexual harassment lawsuits. I agree that women are often disproportionately punished for this kind of behavior, but if OP is working anywhere like what the Thinx cases describe, then I agree that this may be the rare situation where the gender lens is trumped by the sheer CRAY-ness of the situation.

        1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

          Don’t this speculation run the risk of outing the OP to her coworkers? How many of them have a personal relationship with the boyfriend?

          Alison, where does this fit in the commenting rules?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            The Thinx CEO isn’t there anymore, so I don’t think it’s about her. I agree we shouldn’t speculate on what company it is, but I think people are mentioning Thinx just as a way of saying “yes, this isn’t unheard of.”

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I mentioned it mostly because of the behavior sounded similar, and because I knew Thinx is not considered a tech company and not HQ’d in LA (whereas OP’s employer is both of those things).

        2. Gazebo Slayer*

          The (former!) Thinx CEO popped into my head immediately! It doesn’t necessarily sound like this boss is harassing people like Miki Agrawal was, but considering her poor boundaries that is definitely in the realm of possibility.

      3. Plague of frogs*

        I think the answer is to condemn men more strongly, not to give women a pass. This dynamic is NOT OK.

        As a long-time tech worker, let me add that this behavior is not at all normal. We marry coworkers. We don’t make out with them at work events.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think anyone is arguing the boss should be given a pass….? My response and everyone commenting has said it’s wildly unacceptable.

          1. Plague of frogs*

            Logically, bringing gender into your answer can mean two things:
            1. Men are treated leniently for this sort of thing. We should treat women in the same lenient way.
            2. Women are treated harshly for this sort of thing. We should treat men in the same harsh way.

            If you bring it up in a letter about a female boss, it means #1.

            1. Reba*

              That’s not logical. And the “if you bring it up, then this” conclusion definitely doesn’t follow.

              All Alison is saying is what she said: examine your reactions and try to ensure you’re thinking about it in the same way you would if the genders were changed. That’s it.

              1. Plague of frogs*

                OK, so change the genders and what do you have?
                1. “Wow, what a stud, he should totally be allowed to behave that way!” We all agree that’s the wrong response.
                2. “Wow, what a scumbag, he needs to be removed from the company for this behavior!” This one is gender neutral. The behavior is wrong, end of story.
                3. “Well, it’s wrong, but is really important and he’s really important to it so we’ll go easy.” This one is so common…so horrifically common…and it’s easy to fall into. And “she’s a woman in tech” can give another “reason” to fall into it. Or even, “she’s a woman and we’ve always turned a blind eye to men doing this so we must be fair!”

      4. Susana*

        Absolutely, Alison – I was very glad you brought that up. Yes, it’s poor behavior, but yes, it’s also true that a woman behaving that way is perceived entirely differently than a man doing the same or worse. Were it a man, wold people in this comments section wonder if the tech community would assume all the men who worked there were “up for it?”

      5. Loud Noises*

        Women are often condemned more strongly for sex, period, much less this issue in particular. See also: Madonna/whore complex.

    2. nep*

      Yeah–I am not quite getting why the gender point needs to be made here. I’m thinking it through…

        1. Annoyed*

          I think that until the world completely changes regarding condemning women for behavior that males (still in most cases) get a pass on it is absolutely aporopriate to bring in the gender issue.

          Inappropriate from anyone? Absolutely. A woman judged more/more harshly than a male? Yup still happening and necessary (not “worth it,” necessary) to point out.

          1. Lolli*

            And also the fact that we expect women in power to be a representation of all women sets us up for some big disappointments in our fellow women.

            1. Annoyed*

              Yeah. It’s kind of analogous to expecting an individual of any group (e.g. Muslims) to be the face of the entirety if the group because only certain people, generally white, Christian, middle aged males are individuals.

              All others are part of a hive mind collective of whatever group they identify with and therefore can have only one POV amongst them.

          2. nep*

            But would a male get a pass on this behavior? Yes, you say ‘inappropriate from anyone.’
            So where does it come from that she is possibly being judged any more harshly than a male would be? Not being snarky here–I’m really trying to understand these points of view.

            1. Annoyed*

              I don’t think anyone is saying she *is* being judged more harshly. Whats being said is that often, like usually, women ate held to a much higher standard of behavior than males are.

              Bob gets fired. Rita gets fired, blackballed, sued. Same exact behavior, even to the exact amount of time spent on office nookie, yet Rita will be punished four fold compared ti toBob.

              So what it’s saying is that we should all check our gender expectation bias when makjng judgements in these kinds of things. Actually in pretty much most things, work or not work.

            2. Le Sigh*

              I mean, the fact that people do it all the time, unconsciously (unconscious bias). Even if they’re progressive and think about this stuff, even if they work on prison reform or immigration or identify as feminists. It’s really easy to slide into the thinking we all grew up around. I work in those spheres and sometimes the things I hear out of the mouths of women who know better is….startling.

              Alison isn’t saying the OP *is* doing it here, only saying it’s easy for any of us to do it and so it’s good to think through these things to check for any of that thinking, esp. because her boss is a woman in a leadership position. Boss’ behavior is bad, no question–but is there any less egregious stuff she’d normally not think about if boss were a man? What if she does decide to bring it up or complain? How does she talk about it and frame the issue, to be sure she’s clear on what’s unacceptable, regardless of gender?

              There are also a couple of good posts further down about how doing this stuff, even in really egregious cases like this, is helpful.

              1. Specialk9*

                Agreed with all of this. This is my exact struggle – my childhood programming is diametrically opposed to my current ethical code, and yet that early programming is so often my first reaction, before I stop and go wait, wait…

              2. nep*

                Yes–I get that Alison’s not saying OP is doing it here. I didn’t mean that.
                Anyway thanks for your thoughts.

            3. Student*

              Well, we’ve had a number of letters where a subordinate wrote in to complain about male boss’s philandering. Generally, the advice is that one should ignore the boss’s moral failure and concentrate on one’s own career.

              Historically, broadly, men do get a pass on this more so than women. At my own company, within the last five years, I’ve seen women get fired for having affairs with male co-workers (and the men in the affair not fired, or suffer any obvious career penalty).

              I don’t really think it impacts this particular letter-writer, though. Letter writer wanted to know whether this is as normal as her boss pretends it is – it is not normal. Letter writer wanted to know what to do about it – move on if it’s something you can’t put up with. Don’t feel obligated to warn the cheated-on boyfriend if that jeopardizes your livelihood, but also don’t feel barred from doing so if that is what your conscious and relationship with him demands. I’m not sure there’s any particular thing the letter-writer can or should do about gender bias in affairs at work – if she’s actually more disgusted by it because her boss is a woman, I think that’ll make it more unbearable to be around, even if the letter-writer self-identifies this as a gender bias within herself. I tend to think men ought to be held to the standard women are held to in this regard, though.

        2. Specialk9*

          You have an editor for this column? I’m so fascinated. I assumed this was a 1-person operation. Do they do proofing, or suggest thoughts on the columns?

      1. Myrin*

        I agree. I think it’s a very worthwhile point in general that’s also one of the more pervasive ones in broader society and as such one that needs to be worked on socially especially strongly, but I didn’t really feel like it fit super well here because the boss’s behaviour is just SO outrageous

        1. Le Sigh*

          I actually liked that Alison included it. OP works in a woman-led, empowerment-focused job and is questioning what’s “normal.” It’s a good thought exercise to ground yourself in the real problem, check your own biases, and separate anything gender-related from the real issue at play. Plus sometimes in these situations or progressive-led work, you can find yourself asking, “am I really a good activist/advocate/feminist if I have a problem with my female boss’ behavior?” Walking yourself through it can provide some firm grounding–and help you speak up if you decide to, since you know the difference.

          1. Cobol*

            This especially seems relevant to OP who is becoming disillusioned because of the actions.

            Leaders can be egotists. I’m a cynic, so it doesn’t affect me, but I think it’s good for people to be able to separate the leader from the cause.

            1. Le Sigh*

              Yeah, unfortunately the progressive space isn’t immune to bad behavior or even #MeToo issues. When you work in a supposedly progressive space, it can feel even more shocking since you assume we were all here to do good and help. And that can make it even harder for some people to speak up.

          2. Susana*

            Yes. And ask yourself honestly – if it’s a woman behaving this way, do you think she’s a whore and using her sexuality to advance her career, and making all female techies look bad, whereas if it’s a man behaving this badly, you just throw up your hands and say, well, men, they can be such dogs? Bug difference. Even though it’s wrong behavior for both.

            1. Annoyed*

              Exactly. And…so many still do that…even enlightened feminists because if social conditioning. Misogyny, especially internalized misogyny is a hell of a drug.

          3. Junior Dev*

            This is a good point–bringing up gender not to make excuses but to help work through any hangups you might have about judging your “empowering” boss. It’s useful to say “women are often judged more harshly than men…but this behavior is still unacceptable for anyone regardless of gender.”

      2. Le Sigh*

        I think in situations like this it’s worth considering the gender lens to, if nothing else, make sure you have a strong grasp of what the problem is. Sometimes there’s really no problem and it boils down to double standards against men and women–a really common issue with women, especially in leadership. In cases like this, you’ve got a problem regardless, but it’s good to consider the gender lens to separate out anything tinged with gender from the actual problems going on here–thereby giving you a firm grasp on the real issues at play.

        I also just think it’s good to be in the habit off asking yourself if gender/sexuality/race, etc., is coming into play in your thinking, so that you’re naturally checking yourself and working on your own internal biases.

      3. Ralph Wiggum*

        I agree. It felt like it took an issue of bad behavior and unnecessarily genderized it.

        It left me with the impression that we should treat her more gently, because she’s a woman.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Really? I tried to be clear that it was 100% unacceptable regardless of gender. In fact, my whole point there was to suggest that the OP ensure she’s thinking of it the same as she would with a man, not any differently.

          1. Cobol*

            Don’t doubt yourself. I think it’s important. Whether implicitly our explicitly, and whether for good or for bad, gender often shapes our views. It’s relevant to acknowledge that and look at how it influences how we think about something.

          2. qualifiedbutunconnected*

            For what its worth, I thought your point(s) re: gender were clear and well advised.

            1. Specialk9*

              Me too!

              My response to owning my own -ist programming is to double check whenever I can. This was a really good example of that.

          3. Le Sigh*

            Considering bias doesn’t automatically = treat with kid gloves or more “gently” — a term I’m not crazy about here and I don’t think was in any way implied by Alison. It means taking a minute to think through whether unconscious bias around gender/race/sexuality/ability/age, etc. is having a role here. We’re all prone to it, so we should all be doing it. In this case, Alison is asking her to consider it, then advising OP to proceed pretty much the same way she’s told other OPs to navigate issues like this with male bosses.

          4. Annoyed*

            You were clear. Don’t doubt yourself. It *is* important and didn’t at all imply handling her with kid gloves.

          5. Student*

            This seems like a case where you’ve misunderstood WHY we need to identify our own biases. That’s my criticism, specifically. It would’ve worked more as you seem to intend if you made it an aside to the readers, not advice to the letter-writer.

            Identifying the bias is supposed to be about consciously counteracting it in a positively-reinforcing way. If you self-identify that you are, for example, afraid of strangers who are black men. The idea is then that you recognize this fear is irrational, based on internalized racism. Self-identifying it prompts you to, for example, make a conscious effort to get to know your black male co-workers, whom you’ve avoided due solely to race-based fear. Further, the idea is that once you get to know them, you will have your irrational fear of black men specifically counteracted because your co-workers are just normal dudes.

            The idea is NOT that you should ignore all other indicators when a man who happens to be black might actually be hostile to you – like if a black co-worker took credit for your ideas at work, you shouldn’t excuse that because he is black and thus has suffered through racism. If you do that, ultimately, your irrational fear of other races will get reinforced because you’ll ignore other non-racist warning signs about bad behavior and excuse or tolerate behavior you normally wouldn’t tolerate, in the name of trying to be tolerant. This is holding some people to lower standards – not counteracting internal biases – and it ultimately hurts everyone.

            The situation in this letter is way more #2 than #1 in the given context. You are trying to mitigate that by saying “Well, still not okay” but you’re undermining that with a “but… sexism.” The letter-writer is disgusted by the boss’s behavior. It is objectively disgusting behavior, no matter gender. LW has only two real courses of action because this is her boss – look for a new job or put up with it.

            If she’s more disgusted because her boss is a woman than she otherwise would be… then what? Identifying that bias doesn’t actually make it less disgusting to the letter-writer, it just identifies why she finds it more disgusting. Identifying internal bias doesn’t magically wash it away; that happens through repeated positive reinforcement that the bias isn’t actually based in reality. There’s no course for achieving positive reinforcement here. There’s no specific thing she should do to counteract that bias, because she’s not being asked to determine a fair penalty for it – this is her boss. And there’s a huge whiff of “Hold her to the lower standards you hold men to out of sexism, and just put up with it for longer” inherent to the messaging when the advice is directed at the LW.

        2. AnonEMoose*

          Not “more gently.” Just “the same way you would treat a man who is behaving the same way.”

          If you perceive that as “more gently,” that’s kind of…on you? And could possibly be a cue to consider your own assumptions. If you want it to be.

          1. Student*

            Men historically get treated more gently for this than I personally think they should. I don’t think it’s a good idea to hold women to the lower standard that we set for men specifically because we hold sexist views that men are incapable of keeping their pants on.

        3. animaniactoo*

          I did not get “treat her more gently, because she’s a woman”. I got “don’t treat her more harshly because she’s a woman”.

          1. The New Wanderer*

            Yes, this. As in, CEO Bob gets fired for this kind of behavior, while CEO Barbara gets fired and black-listed. Both suffer punishment for the same behavior, but Barbara’s is harsher.

        4. IceTea4Meee*

          I got that impression as well and as a female in a still heavily male dominated industry it made me cringe a bit. In this specific case the behavior is so outlandish and inappropriate from the face of the company I don’t think it needed to be addressed here. I wish the boss and her boyfriend’s genders were neutralized so we could just comment on behavior.

          1. Annoyed*

            But in the real world OP’s boss’ and boss’ boyfriend’s genders aren’t neutralized ergo it is good for OP to check her gender biases.

      4. Foreign Octopus*

        I think it’s interesting because I know that I tend to automatically default to assuming that certain people in the letters are male based on their behaviour so I’m glad that Alison included the gender. It adds a different dynamic to it.

      5. Delphine*

        I agree. I think it would have been a great addition to the end of the response, as an important aside, but to spend two paragraphs in the middle to advise the LW to take a look at how she may or may not be interpreting this wildly inappropriate behavior differently because her boss is a woman felt…performative. (I’m certain that’s not how it was meant, having read this blog regularly, but that’s how it felt.)

        1. Stardust*

          Yes, that’s how it felt to me as well. Definitely an important point and i get why it was included but it felt somewhat misplaced in its length and prominence because that made it feel almost chastising and like LW needs to do a deep and thorough introspection regardless of the situation at hand.

        2. IceTea4Meee*

          Yes that could be it for me as well. As I read through I had to stop for a second and go what…. is she about to get a pass because she’s a female? I definitely thought at least where it is placed that it detracts from the conversation. I agree it would be better as a footnote or aside.

    3. Emilia Bedelia*

      I think the point here is that the reasons that it is so wildly OMG NO are not at all a factor of the boss’s gender.
      It may seem like teasing this out isn’t important because the behavior is so egregious, but it is a good practice to identify valid/invalid reasoning (in any argument, really).
      This is also convenient if there’s any concern of the accused person “playing a -blank- card” and saying “Your criticism of me isn’t valid because you wouldn’t say that if I weren’t a minority” – if you can articulate exactly what is wrong, while consciously separating the behavior from the identity of the person, you’ll have an easier time defending your point.

  7. TCO*

    OP might enjoy the book The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer. It’s not about a boss having sex in the office, but it is a story about a young woman working for a women’s empowerment startup and struggling when she sees dissonance between what she believes and the organization’s actions. It’s a great read.

    1. E*

      Also the book Brotopia – talks about gender in tech and a references a lot of the behavior OP talks about. I’ve only read an excerpt but it was the first thing I thought about when I read the letter.

    2. buttercup*

      Today, I was perusing the internet for jobs and came across a job role that I liked, so I clicked on it. The first word to describe the company was “woman-owned start-up”. For reasons I wasn’t conscious of at the time, many red flags were raised in my head and I immediately exited the job ad. I think I imagined that the company would be like what is described in this letter. Women running businesses is great, but whenever a business exclusively leads with how progressive/diverse/inclusive they are, it makes me sense that they rely too much on that branding to cover up fundamental dysfunctions.

  8. Pollygrammer*

    I’d be temped to get so sarcastic.

    “If I get chemical burns trying to bleach my brain, workman’s comp will cover it, right?”

    1. Queen of Draggin's*

      Also, full on Hazmat suit, respirator and a pair of tongs to pick up the offending “evidence” and a full on query to the room. “Whose is this?”

      1. Pollygrammer*

        Have some appropriate music on your phone to sneak up behind her and play when she starts making out with somebody at a company function:
        “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals…”

  9. Alienor*

    I wouldn’t tell the boyfriend, first off because their relationship is their business, and second because that’s a fast track to ending up out of a job before you have another one to go to. However, I think you’d be within your rights to say something about the “evidence” around the office–that would be gross and TMI even if she were your roommate and not your boss. (Puts complaints about coworkers not cleaning up after themselves into perspective, though…I’d much rather find an unwashed oatmeal bowl in the sink than a used condom on the carpet!)

    1. Lil Fidget*

      This was where I thought OP was way off base. It makes sense to be grossed out at this over-sharing and it makes sense to want to work somewhere that this doesn’t happen. But … even considering telling your boss’ boyfriend is weird to me. This is a good opportunity to step way back from something, not get yourself more enmeshed in the situation.

    2. beanie beans*

      Yep, the whole thing is inappropriate for the workplace, but there is no reason to tell the boyfriend. Stay out of that mess.

      1. Cobol*

        To both. OP says she also has a personal relationship with the boyfriend though. I can see where you’d feel guilty for not saying anything (I wouldn’t, but I can see how someone else would)

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah, I could see feeling very different if you had a personal, amicable relationship with the partner; then it begins to feel like keeping unwanted secrets. Especially if the person did you a solid re: mentor ship or etc.

          I still wouldn’t say anything, I don’t think, but it feels very different than notifying a relative stranger.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            If she wants to tell him, she should get another job first.
            If he was someone I liked or a friend I would want to tell him, but I wouldn’t unless I could be sure of not losing my job.

    3. MatKnifeNinja*

      For all the OP knows, the boyfriend doesn’t care and they have an open relationship.

      Take it from someone who told (I learned the hard way), and had the other party SHRIEK profanities more or less saying mind your own business.

      The SO is the least of the worries here.

  10. Amber Rose*

    Oh, man.

    No, you don’t HAVE to quit, but you might want to. Companies with recklessly inconsiderate bosses like that tend to run into trouble down the line.

  11. Shark Whisperer*

    Wouldn’t some of this be considered sexual harassment? I’m only remembering what they told us in health class in high school, so it might not count in a work context, but I though talking explicitly about sex and performing sexual acts in front of others without their permission was considered sexual harassment as well. Seeing as it’s a startup and its the CEO we are talking about, I doubt you could go to HR. But, maybe when you say stop telling me these things you could mention because its sexual harassment?

    1. Lil Fidget*

      This is an interesting question, I’d need an employment lawyer to weigh in – I do recall hearing of cases where employees have complained about sexual jokes and imagery in offices creating a hostile work environment, even when the jokes weren’t aimed at the complaining employee themselves.

      1. Belle8bete*

        I was wondering this too. If the OP asks (which hasn’t happened, it seems) directly for her to drop these topics and she keeps on, isn’t that harassment?

        And honestly if this was a male boss I believe more of us commenters would have IMMEDIATELY questioned if this was harasssment. I think a lot of people would be more concerned about a male boss acting this way around female employees.

        I do believe that Alison offers a useful tool to folks worrying about sexism (“switch the gender and see if it bothers you the same way”) and it’s a good way to consider bias, but THIS IS MADNESS FOR ANY GENDER!
        I was surprised that aspect took up that much of the reply. I figured sexual harassment definitions (and defining what would and wouldn’t be harassment) would come in.

        1. Specialk9*

          I was wondering that too. It’s kind of shocking that this question came up so late on the page. I get really annoyed when the MRAs show up and accuse everyone of sexism against men because “if the genders were flipped”…

          But, I mean, if the genders were flipped, sexual harassment would have been way up on the page.

      2. Bea*

        It doesn’t have to be aimed at you to be deemed hostile. If two coworkers are having consensual relations out in public, it is sexual harassment to those around them.

        Just like racist or homophobic jokes said to a person who are okay with it, the person who overhears it can have a case.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          It depends on if the conduct affects both genders equally, though. Some courts have ruled that even severe and pervasive sexual comments may not be impermissible sexual harassment if employees of both genders are subjected to the comments (or hear the comments, even if they’re intended for someone else).

          1. Annoyed*

            Oooo that needs some time in legislation. I can see how something like this would make people of any gender extremely uncomfortable.

            Ergo…the hostility and harassment isn’t actually limited to persons who are only members of X gender.

    2. Dr. Pepper*

      A former coworker of my husband, way back in the day when he worked night shift, demanded that Love Line (a late night radio show where people called in with sex and relationship questions) be turned off because it made her uncomfortable and thus was sexual harassment. She bypassed simply asking and went right to HR about it, and everyone on the night crew got written up and sent to training. She was extremely unpopular for this and many other reasons.

      So if THAT is sexual harassment, this would be too.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        I honestly wouldn’t be comfortable having Love Line on while I was working, either. If you have headphones, whatever. But what I recall of that show was pretty explicit.

        I think the PG rating is a good guideline. If you wouldn’t talk about it in front of a kid, don’t talk about it at work. Love Line is more like NC-17, or at least an R.

        1. Dr. Pepper*

          I agree. It’s a pretty explicit and cringy show and they shouldn’t have had it on in the first place. What bothered my husband about that situation was that the woman was complained said nothing to her coworkers about it, and when asked directly if she would prefer the radio shut off or the station changed said everything was fine and not to worry. I should point out that she had seniority here, both in title and length of time with the company. I was just thinking that if a radio show got everyone written up, I can’t imagine how the OP’s boss would NOT land in big trouble for using the office as her personal sex playground and networking events as tindr.

        2. Annoyed*

          Likewise. I wouldn’t want that on at all, especially if *any* of my coworkers were male…even just one of them. It woukd have me so high up the uncomfortable/anxiety/embarrassment ladder you could see me from space.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think HR may be overzealous, because what you’re describing is not necessarily sexual harassment. Unfortunately, a lot of employers don’t understand how to apply sexual harassment law when it intersects with a hostile work environment.

        All that said, Love Line is a little explicit (and inappropriate, and has all sorts of terribly stigmatizing comments) for most workplaces for completely non-harassment-related reasons.

      1. Belle8bete*

        Of course, it’s also possible that being able to say “this is a hostile work environment” or “this is harassment” doesn’t actually change the result of ultimately deciding if you just need to leave…I just wonder if maybe the OP might not consider taking steps as Alison has outlined in previous letters concerning harassment?

        Also do we have a sense of how other people feel about this? Is there any benefit or harm in finding out of coworkers are also uncomfortable about this?

        (Is there a way to talk with others and not make it a gossip drama—but if it happened in front of everyone’s face it’s probably okay to be like “so I was uncomfortable when boss was making out with so and so in front of us…” to a colleague.)

      2. Foreign Octopus*

        Are there definitions to what is severe or pervasive or is that left up to HR’s discretion?

        1. Aitch Arr*

          There’s the reasonable person standard.

          From SHRM dot org:
          www DOT shrm DOT org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/reasonableperson.aspx

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            It’s actually not defined solely by a reasonable person standard. Assuming the other elements of a sexual harassment claim have already been satisfied, the legal test for “severe or pervasive” is whether:

            (1) the plaintiff subjectively perceived the conduct to be abusive; and
            (2) when standing in OP’s shoes, a reasonable person would perceive the allegedly harassing conduct to be sufficiently severe or pervasive to affect the “terms, conditions or privileges of employment” or the very nature of the workplace.

            These requirements are usually called the “subjective” and “objective” factors. Folks are more likely to have their cases tossed based on the objective factor, but you have to demonstrate both for liability to attach. There’s been cases that were dismissed post-trial where the complained-of conduct was considered objectively harassing and severe/pervasive by a jury, but the plaintiff did not perceive it to be subjectively abusive.

  12. Belle8bete*


    You should directly ask her to drop the sex talk around you. If she doesn’t do so after you ask, I think that could be heading into sexual harassment territory maybe? I’m not sure, but you should directly ask her to stop that line of conversation.

    Honestly, I’d probably leave the venue if someone was making out like that— and I deal with the possible firing (not saying that’s the right approach or smart one). If asked why I left, I would say “that was really inappropriate and made me exceedingly uncomfortable, so much so that I left.”

    This is not normal! I think most regular humans would be HORRIFIED if a male boss did this (I think more folks might be even more horrified that a male boss was acting and speaking this way around female employees).

    I can see some people holding back if it is a female boss and female employee because “she is empowering women so her acts are a feminist act” (I think that perspective is insane and not that many people would think it—but I’ve known some people who would…I wonder if the boss feels that way about her own behavior though).

    1. Belle8bete*

      Oops I repeated myself in another comment! I thought this one was eaten by the interwebs. Sorry!!

  13. Cucumberzucchini*

    Just an aside, empowering women doesn’t mean stooping to the level of/behaving like the stereotypical boorish bro. I would be looking for a new job because I wouldn’t want to be associated with a start-up company (that are so shaky anyway) with a CEO who shows such bad judgement and the potential PR nightmare if this kind of behavior gets out. I’d rather be looking for a job at my leisure instead of if/when this company fails.

    1. Belle8bete*

      Yes! Agree so much! As a feminist I would rather not be “empowered” by my boss acting like this.

      1. Annoyed*

        Also if a woman is being “a dude” to be considered legit that only reinforces that male=default/correct/proper and female=other.

    2. Your Mother*

      Right? There is a new “look at this company’s C-level’s wildly inappropriate behavior, don’t use their product” expose just about every month lately.

  14. Engineer Girl*

    So there’s a lot going on.

    No, it’s not normal. And you have a jerk boss who is trying to gaslight you by claiming it is. On top of that, they are dissing you by claiming someone with more experience would find it normal. This is the crux of the issue. You have someone trying to manipulate you. That means at the very core you can’t trust them.

    Is she having hook ups with any men in the office? That’s potentially grounds for gender based discrimination. That can sink a start up quickly.

    Then there is the boyfriend thing. It’s possible they’re in an open relationship. But if they aren’t then she’s willing to lie to those closest to her. Which means she’ll lie to you and investors.

    For these reasons I’d expect to see your company go down in flames in the future. Not that these kind of people can’t created successful companies (they can and have), but because the long odds are that the company is going down.

    I would start looking for another job.

    1. AKchic*

      I would also assume that OP has brought up her discomfort with the PDA to her boss because the boss was gaslighting her. The whole “She plays it off like this is normal behavior in tech and that I would totally get it if I were older and more experienced” comment says to me that it has been brought up and blown off. It’s as if she is trying to encourage more of this behavior in order to normalize her own bad behavior.

      This company may very well suffer because of this boss, or is already suffering in ways the other employees don’t know about.

    2. Lora*

      “For these reasons I’d expect to see your company go down in flames in the future.”

      I would bail simply because the boss has got horrible judgment and her boss (the Board of Directors) isn’t managing her worth a darn and apparently doesn’t give a rat’s butt about how they look to investors.

      Have seen companies both large and small where this sort of behavior was seen as totally cool (mostly but not exclusively by men) and in all instantiations the people underneath the offending manager either slowly circled the drain or went down in flames. In the case of a very large company you’ve definitely heard of, their R&D sub-department which was a Sticky Parts-Mashing cesspool has barely yielded results in eight years and drove out many good rainmakers who didn’t want to work in such a messed up group or were of the wrong sexual orientation to fit in with the overall Good Ole Boys culture. The rainmakers went and made successful products for the competition and are much happier now. In the case of a small startup with a culture like OP describes (though mostly men running the place), their famously professional competition known to run a tight ship has now beaten seven kinds of crap out of them. It’s just another indicator that these people don’t have the judgment necessary to run a lemonade stand, nevermind a company.

      All those HR rules aren’t because people are a bunch of uptight Puritanical meanie-pants. It’s because there’s too much distraction and business risk preventing people from getting actual work done when you have to stop and deal with these shenanigans. It’s too easy for accusations of favoritism, harassment, lack of competitive bids, access to insider / confidential information, etc to tank the company with this nonsense going on.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        Also I would think taking the time to deal with this crap would take away from the actual work, and little or nothing would get done. That alone could bring the company down.

  15. Bea*

    Is she cheating though? She could be poly…given the public behavior she’s not trying to keep it from her live in. So I wouldn’t tell him, he probably knows.

    That aside, GROSS. I do think you need to get out of there.

  16. Cait*

    In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if your boss is a man or woman. Their behavior at professional events (and you could argue at social events) represents your company and you become associated with that (for better, for worse).

    1. It’s not normal, regardless of industry.
    2. I’d start looking for another job
    3. I’m Catholic too, I get the Catholic “guilt” thing… this isn’t it. This is “being a decent human being with morals” thing.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I’m a second-generation liberal atheist and I think this is totally inappropriate.

      I’m leaving the boyfriend out because that’s between them. But it’s hands-down not acceptable to drag coworkers into it, especially when they’re not really in a position to push back against a superior. You can’t hold people captive to your sexcapades.

      1. AKchic*

        Exactly. I’m a liberal atheist poly in an open marriage. You won’t catch me glomming onto people at work conventions. Not ever. You do not bring your kink/fetish into the vanilla world like that. You don’t force your kink onto the vanillas. They didn’t consent to it.

      2. Rosemary7391*

        I dunno. If the boyfriend finds out about this it seems likely they’ll conclude OP knew. That could burn what was previously a good relationship?

        1. AKchic*

          Plausible deniability.

          “as blatant as she was about it, I assumed you knew and this was something the two of you were um… *cough* into.”

  17. Triple Anon*

    I would be looking for a new job. What she’s doing is none of your business, but she’s probably burning a lot of bridges and you don’t want to be associated with that.

    Also, yes, the tech industry can be a party scene. There is more stuff that comes close to this than in some other industries. But if it seems wrong to you and it’s making you uncomfortable, go with that instinct. Trust your judgment about this, which, from what it sounds like, means to distance yourself as much as possible.

    1. Plague of frogs*

      Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of drinking in the office, and some smoking pot in the office. This? This I have never seen.

      1. Whaow*

        You’ve seen weed in the office?! See, this is why I never question whether letters are true just because the scenario is wild to me. You say ‘weed in the office’ so casually, while that’s something I can’t even imagine.

  18. Augusta Sugarbean*

    “I feel especially guilty because [of something someone else is doing]”

    Do yourself a favor and find a way to get this stupid phrase out of your lexicon. Do not shoulder the load of someone else’s bad behavior. These are fully grown adults. They are 100% responsible for their actions. This is not your load to carry. You are only responsible for your actions. Sometimes dealing with repercussions are the only way people make changes for the better. Seriously, you will be doing this person a favor by staying the hell out of it and focusing on what is best for you and your life and your career.

    1. Dr. Pepper*

      Oh my gosh, yes, so much this. Why do we insist on shouldering the guilt for the actions of others? Perhaps because we’re uncomfortable and horrified we feel like we should be Doing Something, so we worry and feel bad because we really can’t do anything else. The boss’s behavior isn’t her employees to control.

      Focus on yourself and what you can do, which is decide if this is a deal breaker and take action accordingly.

    2. Cat Herder*

      I think the guilt is because she feels an obligation to the boyfriend/mentor; she knows something important that she can reasonably assume he would care about. It’s not her fault that she knows, but she does know. It’s the knowledge (or more accurately, keeping the knowledge secret) that causes the guilt, not the boss’s behavior.

      If the boss were embezzling and the OP found out about it because the boss told her/the entire office, then the OP would have an obligation to tell and would no doubt feel guilty if she did not.

      The boss’s sexy times are not the same as embezzlement of course — it’s probably not illegal (unless it is harassment) — but it does seem to prompt an obligation for the OP. That’s the question for OP to decide for herself: am I in fact obligated and what is the best course of action if I am?

      Recovering RC here; it’s all about parsing the guilt…

  19. Washi*

    If she leaves, is there any way to mention this in answering the “why did you leave” question in an interview? It seems like the OP hasn’t been there very long, so I wonder if her leaving would raise some eyebrows and she might need to come up with some kind of explanation. But everything I can think of sounds so…salacious. And just “work style conflict” would make OP potentially sound like the difficult one.

    1. Snark*

      “My boss got her bone on in the office and left evidence.” just throw that one out there and let it land on the conference table like a dead trout.

      No, she shouldn’t do that. But she should report back if she does.

    2. Clarice Fitzpatrick*

      Maybe talk about workplace culture mismatch but emphasize something more innocuous/subjective like “I’m more of a [x] person and they wanted [y]” or “I want a better work/life balance” (which, if you stretch the meaning, could technically be honest). Or cite something about the prospective company that excites her.

    3. CDM*

      “As is common in so many small businesses and start-ups, the line between personal and professional became blurred in ways that were sometimes uncomfortable for employees. I’m looking forward to working at a company where I can focus on my job and professional development with fewer irrelevant distractions.”

    4. Tex*

      “While I believe in the mission of the organization, I disagreed with their strategy.” OR just a simple “I prefer a more structured environment than a small start-up.”

    5. This Daydreamer*

      It just wasn’t what I envisioned when the workplace was described as an open office and I found the environment distracting.

      I felt that my male coworkers were given positions that weren’t available to women.

      I found out I was allergic to latex.

      Wait, didn’t I see you in my boss’s office last week? I think I remembered having to find the owner of that watch afterwards.

  20. Clarice Fitzpatrick*

    I second/third/infinite-y advice to leave. All the advice Alison has given you is good and I’d just add another rule she’s been pretty clear which is the longer you stay in a workplace with a toxic atmosphere and inappropriate conduct, the more likely you’re going to internalize it in some way. This isn’t to say you’ll start mimicking her sexcapades, but more that the appropriate boundaries and behavior to expect from a boss may become warped, or maybe the constant discomfort you feel will grow into something more long term and be harder to shake off later. Definitely flag any behavior you feel comfortable calling out/setting boundaries on, but this is so egregiously weird and inappropriate, I’d anticipate that she probably won’t listen and try to find somewhere else in the meantime.

  21. Liz*

    Seems like this letter could make it extremely obvious who the company/executive is to anyone who would know the person. Yikes.

  22. Cindy Hoffman*

    I was surprised Alison didn’t bring up reporting this to HR? I thought it was a bit strange the “if this was a man double standard etc.” What the hell was that about?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I read it as “small start-up, no HR” but I’m not sure why — I just went back and re-read the letter and she doesn’t say they’re small.

      If they do have HR, she can absolutely go to them.

  23. A.N. O'Nyme*

    …I have no words. I’m all for sex positivity but rubbing your sexual habits into people’s (people who don’t care to know and did not ask to be left in the loop) faces like that – especially your employees who might feel awkward about telling you to cut it out?? That’s somewhere on the border between “being sex positive” and “being exhibitionistic”.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      I’m sex positive. I have sex in my home and sometimes other places. I encourage others to do the same. It’s entirely possible to be sex positive without ever having sex in public. (And I may be a little weird, in that I think a make-out session counts as sex for these purposes.)

      This behavior is aaaaall the way over to the exhibitionist side of the dial. She’s beyond caring who knows – she’s making a point of showing off and bragging about it. Part of her enjoyment is knowing that she has an audience, she has witnesses to how sexxxay she is. But they are not a willing audience AND they are her subordinates. She’s apparently not the head of the company. Does her boss know about this crap she’s pulling?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Certainly possible (it’s possible with any letter), but a decade of writing this column has taught me that there is way more ridiculousness out there than I would have thought possible at the start.

      1. Augusta Sugarbean*

        Seriously. I Want To Believe (that it’s fake) but I’ve seen my share of insanity in my own workplaces and I don’t believe there is a limit to the bad behavior that people can get up to.

        1. MatKnifeNinja*

          I’ve seen stuff (not by choice) in the early 1980s, that makes the above look like Sunday School.

          *cocaine, more cocaine, stupidity, much more cocaine*

    2. Myrin*

      Alison always asks that we not speculate on the real-ness of letters sent to her – first because if it is real, the OP is going to feel terrible that others doubted her, and second because for every weird, unbelievable letter we get, there are always dozens of people in the comments (and certainly many more reading silently) who are in a similar (or even the exact same!) situation who can benefit from any advice.

      To translate a saying from my language that doesn’t flow quite as well in English but is true regardless: There’s really nothing that doesn’t exist.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No, I actually stopped asking that a while back. I did used to ask that because it feels unhelpful and derailing (and unkind to the letter writer), but then realized how tyrannical it sounds to say “you cannot question these letters!” So now the site rules just say: “I have no way of knowing if the letters people submit or real or not. I assume all advice columnists get trolled now and then, but I don’t really care as long as the answer might be useful to someone.” But I still don’t want it to become derailing or unkind (and will step in if that happens).

        1. Myrin*

          Now that you mention it, I think I’ve actually read that before but still had ye olde rule in my head. Nevermind, then! (I still don’t think it sounds tyrannical though, because you always phrased it very kindly, but I like that new wording a lot nonetheless!)

          1. Lil Fidget*

            To be fair, I would be pretty sad if I wrote in with a real situation, and commenters spent a lot of space on the board debating if they thought it was real or not. I think this is a worse outcome than somebody feeling really smug about having “tricked” us all. That latter person probably deserves some pity for being a sad internet troll anyway, I can afford to give them the occasional win.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              There is nothing more boring than people debating whether a letter is real. Unless you can bring up Actual Facts like “spiders aren’t insects” or “It’s winter in Australia right now,” but the case is usually “I wouldn’t feel like this, ergo no one else would.”

              Also, I have seen the most ridiculously banal happenings decried as clearly fictional. Yet in real life weird things happen all the time–I could make several recent points from national news about things that would get you laughed out of a director’s office… But to avoid politics I’ll point to identical twins Penelope Esther and Esther Penelope, who grew up to become rival advice columnists advising people on how to manage their relationships while not speaking to each other for decades. Also–and I paused to go double check this remembered detail, and it Actually Happened–just before their planned double wedding one of them met a hot guy while at a fitting for a wedding dress, so she swapped out the original groom for the guy from the store.

    3. Anna Moose*

      Really? It reminded of me of the stories about Thinx and my first reaction was to check if that founder had started a new company.

        1. Pollygrammer*

          I was thinking about Thinx too. The founder was accused of harassment and stepped down.

          She also called herself a “SHE-EO.” Words cannot express how appalling I find that.

          1. Lady Phoenix*


            i feel like I should be cringing, but all I am thinking is C3PO with huge fake eye lashes glued on and all the blue replaced with pink.

          2. Julia*

            Considering she’s part Japanese, and Japanese doesn’t have the sound construct of “see” (as in CEO), but usually turns that into “she” (so “have a seat” sounds like “have a sheet”, and “sit!” to a dog becomes “shit!” – which is hilarious), maybe she didn’t do it on purpose?

        2. Anna Moose*

          It sounds like it’s better now! They replaced the CEO, set up an HR department, and increased the benefits/pay for employees to bring it in line with the company mission.

          I guess the moral of that story is that it can get better if some light is shed on the issues. OP, do you have an HR department you could talk to about the nocturnal office activities? Or could push back on this as a group?

      1. Lily Rowan*

        And it reminded me of the stories about the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a totally different environment.

    4. General Ginger*

      I’d love to believe it’s fake, but I’ve seen some stuff in offices that I’d love to unsee, too.

    5. Observer*

      Ever hear of a little company called Uber?

      Yeah, I’m being sarcastic, but when the CEO of a company that size can send out a memo about “woe is me” because he can’t bang on someone at the frat party that is their “retreat” it becomes pretty clear that there really are CEO’s that really, really have strange boundaries.

    6. Foreign Octopus*

      Out of all the letters I’ve read (and I’ve a lot), this one doesn’t seem to touch the iceberg of workplace weirdness that comes our way.

      I would have called the guy who ghosted on his ex and whoops, she’s now his boss fake but he came back and gave us more (greatly appreciated).

      Besides, people will literally have sex anywhere.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        And there is definitely a subgroup of exhibitionists who earnestly believe that everyone else is a voyeur interested in them personally, and so turned on rather than squicked out by their various exhibits.

    7. OlympiasEpiriot*

      The only reason it doesn’t to me is because I found my mind dredging up a memory of an undergraduate (!) regional engineering conference at a competing school where the student chapter of a national engineering org was hosting and interacting with the visiting guests/schmoozing/etc. There was a woman on that student board who was positively stalking the room and even touching people in a way that at first I thought had to be a joke because it looked like something out of a pre-Hays Code movie where Mata Hari tries to make men uncomfortable. It, sadly, was not a joke.

      I consider myself to have a wide streak of Mae West in me, so, I’m not allergic to flirting, but, OMG, this was SO inappropriate.

      I briefly wondered if she got a job in tech and this was her. (I don’t even remember her name. But, oh boy, do I remember her face and her movements.

  24. mark132*

    Concerning telling the boyfriend, I usually trend to minding my own business. Though this may be a special case. I would only consider it if I had a close relationship with the person being cheated on. And OP it sounds like you do, so I would probably tell him.

    1. nep*

      But again, that would mean assuming they are in a monogamous relationship.
      I don’t think it’s her role to tell the boyfriend. My 2 cents.

      1. mark132*

        I’m torn on the issue. Partly due to your reason, my own ignorance of their situation, and partly due to the desire to stay out of splatter zone.

        Again, I would have to be close to the other party to get involved. And if I did approach it, I might try to be oblique. Though I struggle to come up with an oblique way to approach it.

  25. Lucille2*

    OP, I’m a woman working in tech for the last 15 years. Both in startup and major corporation. THIS IS NOT NORMAL! Yes, there are tech companies with a literal open bar in the office, and game rooms are a thing. But it’s still a professional environment and employees are expected to behave professionally.

    I am going to disagree with Alison’s take on whether or not gender plays a role in how it’s perceived. This is inappropriate professional behavior regardless of gender. If she’s embracing the tech-bro-culture to show the men that women can play and win at their game in the name of empowering women, I believe she’s doing women (and men) a disservice. This isn’t Mad Men. My guess is that clients and investors are judging her behavior too, and she risks being known, sadly, for her inappropriate behavior rather than the product/company she is promoting.

    1. Rey*

      I just want to say that Alison specifically said “To be clear, this behavior would be inappropriate from anyone, man or woman — but sometimes women are condemned more strongly for it than men would be.” I agree with Alison here–historically, women are usually expected to be sexually pure to the utmost extreme, and have faced social/cultural repercussions when they don’t meet that expectation.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Right — my point was “make sure you’re not judging this differently than you would with a man.” It’s not okay either way, of course.

      2. nep*

        I’m still not getting it, but the food for thought is good. I find the conversation here about this aspect interesting.

    2. Annoyed*

      “My guess is that clients and investors are judging her behavior too, and she risks being known, sadly, for her inappropriate behavior rather than the product/company she is promoting.”

      The gender issue comes into play because while this is probably true, you can bet dollars to donuts that if she were a male the inappropriateness of the behavior would be seen as not quite as egregious. Boys will be boys after all…

      Society at large thinks that way and #MeToo hasn’t really stopped that/changed the patriarchy quite yet.

  26. HopingItsADifferentCompany*

    I just applied to a job that sounds an awful lot like this company.

    OP, if you’re willing, can you confirm if the company is seeking a designer?

      1. HopingItsADifferentCompany*

        Got it. Thanks.

        Picturing an interview:
        Interviewer: Do you have any questions?
        Me: How’s the promiscuity level in the C-Suite?

    1. Let's Talk About Splett*

      I have been reading advice columns since I was little girl in the 80’s and similar situations play out over & over & over. It’s more likely that you applied to a completely different tech company that has a woman CEO>

      1. HopingItsADifferentCompany*

        Ditto re: reading advice columns as a little girl in the 80’s.

        I’m telling you, there’s a strange uncanniness here between this description and the job posting.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          I am oft’ reminded of Dan Savage’s comment that people used to ask him how to do unlikely things with objects. Now they can look that up on the internet. But relationship questions are forever, because people are always sure that their case is unique and different.

  27. Warren*

    Okay so…
    1.) I’m slightly irked by that “Catholic guilt” line
    2.) Every time people see evidence of an infidelity someone chimes in to say that maybe they’re just polyamorous or whatever. Gimme a break. The media may make a big deal about polyamory but in the real world people who would be okay with their significant other doing this are vanishingly few.
    3.) It’s probably not a good idea to approach the boyfriend, though I get why you would want to. I certainly wouldn’t do anything that would make me complicit in covering it up.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I would also disagree with polyamory being “vanishingly rare.” I think it depends a lot on where you live, the communities you spend time with, and other factors. I know quite a few people who practice varying iterations of polyamory, but I also live in a metropolitan area and have a lot of friends in communities that are a bit more open in that way.

        1. Breda*

          Yeah, same. I can certainly come up with more than one handful of non-monogamous couples that I know off the top of my head. I’d guess it’s much more common in SF than in the general population of the US, and it’s certainly not out of the question here. Regardless, though, the boss is still doing it wrong! Keep your tongue to yourself at the office.

    1. nep*

      ‘Gimme a break’?
      I don’t speak for others but I mentioned this only to put it out there that there is more than one prism through which to look at what looks like infidelity. No one’s saying the behavior is OK–it’s excessively inappropriate and borders on hostile work environment territory.
      In any case, agreed not LW’s role to go to boyfriend about it.

    2. Let's Talk About Splett*

      I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools K-12 and the term Catholic Guilt doesn’t bother me at all. For me and much of my family and friends, we were raised with very specific attitudes and judgements about sex that don’t just go away on their own. It’s hard to know if your grossed out by something because you were brainwashed to think all sex outside of marriage is dirty and wrong, double so for women, or if what’s happening is actually pretty gross by general standards.

      I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for 20 years and I still feel a pang of guilt when I eat a cheeseburger on Friday during Lent.

    3. Someone Else*

      Why does “Catholic guilt” irk you? I took it as the OP is or was Catholic and was self-describing, which is hard for me to balk at? Or do you just object to the use of the stereotype even applied to oneself?

    4. Jennifer Thneed*

      > in the real world people who would be okay with their significant other doing this are vanishingly few.

      In the real world, lots poly couples wouldn’t be okay with this because it’s inappropriate workplace behavior and just generally shows poor judgement.

      In the real world, lots more people than you realize have some sort of “not completely monogamous” arrangement in their marriages. They don’t tell you about it because *it’s private*, because it’s about their sex lives. *That’s* why people in comments always bring it up, not because of whatever is on tv this year.

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      Re 2, it’s a reminder that you don’t need to worry about managing other people’s relationships for them. If you don’t know the relationship details, you are not obligated to cover anything up, drop hints, sit their partner down for a serious talk, or anything other than ask after their SO as socially appropriate. (That is, people don’t routinely ask about my spouse, but might if they knew he’d been ill or traveling or something.)

      I do think if people are cheating, it’s on them to cover it up, not on bystanders to guess the degree of openness and then carefully police any references in front of their spouse. Case A, your casual mention is not news to the SO because they know. (Either that the relationship is open, or that SO often associates platonically with people not their spouse, as most of us do.) Case B, the cheating spouse was trying to enlist you in some sexy sexy cover up so you could experience a vicarious thrill, and that behavior should be discouraged as deeply, deeply annoying.

  28. Observer*

    OP, you’ve gotten some good responses. I want to highlight something. I’m concerned that your boss is essentially trying gaslight you this “no big deal” garbage. Her behavior is WILDLY inappropriate and it IS a big deal. As someone else pointed out, she’s someone you really cannot trust.

    Beyond that, I’m also concerned that you are questioning yourself on this. That sounds like she’s gone pretty far in normalizing totally outrageous behavior and lack of boundaries.

    I’m going to say that you don’t have any moral obligation to quit. But I do think that for your own sake, you should start looking. And keep on reminding yourself that this kind of workplace is NOT normal. She’s already started to warp your sense of what’s normal and acceptable. Please try to pull yourself back from that. (This site is a helpful tool for that.)

    1. Angela Ziegler*

      Yup, my first thought was a scene in ‘The Office’ when they find out two characters had been getting together at the office, and Oscar asks “Where? W-Where, Dwight?!” while worryingly moving away from his desk.

    2. Jadelyn*

      “Where are the guns on this ship?”
      “There aren’t any. It’s a leisure vessel. Grandmaster uses it for his good times, orgies and stuff.”
      “Did she just say he uses it for orgies?”
      “Yeah…don’t touch anything.”

  29. Not me*

    My husband invited his boss and his wife to our wedding. The boss RSVPed that they’d be coming, and sent a lovely gift signed rom both of them. He brought his mistress instead of his wife, and introduced her to everyone as such.

    It doesn’t have anything really to do with this, but it reminded me of it and I enjoy telling that story in pretty much any circumstance that I can.

    1. MatKnifeNinja*


      I had a similar scenario (not my wedding, but a wedding), where big deal married boss brought his friend with benefits who was about 6 months pregnant with his kid. He didn’t hide who she was at all.

      Nothing suprises me anymore.

  30. Lady Phoenix*

    Her behavior sounds like a red flag. Does this mean it is ok for coworkers to just come up to me and solicit sex? If the boss does, how will she react if I say no?

    Like, if she is open, she do her… but I don’t want to know unless I ask (and I won’t).

  31. LBG*

    In the ’80’s, I had a male boss who, at sales meetings, would introduce a female coworker (other sales reps, just none that he supervised) as his “wife for the week.” I judged him more harshly than the women he was making out with, definitely, mostly because I had met his actual wife, who was joining us later in the week. Also, he was the boss, and had already been disciplined twice for sexual harassment. I didn’t stay long working for him, as I had an opportunity to pick a different division when the company split the product lines. I didn’t say anything to anyone, though, but mostly because I knew I wasn’t staying in the long run.

  32. Lucky*

    Dang, were any details changed for anonymity? Because there aren’t that many female-lead tech start ups in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t be surprised if the $4!+ hits the fan in OPs office today or tomorrow.

  33. Your Mother*

    I’ve heard the ole “tech companies are big sex parties and that’s totally normal for the industry” line many times, but only ever from one specific demographic. Unsurprisingly, that demographic is comprised entirely of the people who treat their workplace like a big open meat market, and then meet everyone else’s discomfort with “It’s just how it IS in TECH, man! It’s fine!”

  34. AKchic*

    Ultimately this is not your circus, not your monkeys. Regardless of gender, what your boss does with their genitals has no bearing on what you do, period.

    This is not in any way actually hindering your work. This is not actually disrupting your work or workflow. It’s just extraneous background noise and fodder for gossip.
    Do you tell her live-in boyfriend? Well, that is a conscience decision there. Would you tell the wife/girlfriend of a male boss? Can you do it anonymously with no risk of it getting back to you? Are you doing it only out of the goodness of your heart or are you doing it because you don’t want to see the revolving door of sexcapades at the office? (Yes, your intentions matter)

    Overall, yes, you have every right to *not* have a sexualized workplace. Unfortunately, you do. So now you need to minimize both your exposure to it if you can, or at least minimize your reactions and any potential fall-out. It’s not normal and its not something that should be done.

    Should you leave? That is something only you can decide.

    1. Michaela Westen*

      “Are you doing it only out of the goodness of your heart or are you doing it because you don’t want to see the revolving door of sexcapades at the office?”
      If the boss and boyfriend break up, the sexcapades would probably get worse, not better. :/

  35. Ciela*

    My 16 year old Catholic school attending self once walked in on my boss (in the front room of our office), with one of his girlfriends in his lap, and much fewer clothes being worn than appropriate for a public setting.

    I just kept walking and went to my desk, which was in another room. Luckily that was the only time I saw people in a state of partial undress in the office. I think If I saw this now, I would have said something in the moment, about, “hey, let’s all agree to wear shirts and pants in the office!”

  36. nep*

    My supervisor and one of her reports (my equal) were having an affair, and let’s just say they didn’t keep their activities to themselves. It was to the point where I hesitated to walk in the office–one supposed to be shared by the entire department–because if the door was close there was a good chance they were all over each other. I learned that by once walking in on them–they quickly moved away from each other and their faces were beet red. So obvious and awkward. I resented that in a huge way and of course I lost a lot of regard for both of them. It was ridiculous. (The supervisor was eventually fired, mostly over this as I understand it.)

  37. Vancouver Reader*

    Is the boss using the My Dad Wrote a P0rno podcast as her guide for how to run a successful business?

  38. Be Positive*

    And I spit out my lunch when I read the title. Poor OP. OP you shouldn’t think this is at all normal

  39. Hiring Mgr*

    It’s not normal, but not completely unheard of either. There’s a best selling book about a well known Boston area startup where this sort of thing (not the CEO, but still..) went down with regularity.

  40. Indie*

    “She plays it off like this is normal behavior in tech and that I would totally get it if I were older and more experienced,”
    Did you fall into the plot of Dangerous Liaisons?

  41. Carrie Bentley*

    My guess is what’s going on is more nuanced than everyone is taking it. No one literally hooks up at networking events. No one. It’s all done at the bars AFTER the networking events. I highly doubt her CEO was sucking face with multiple men in a professional setting. More likely she was heavily flirting and perhaps very touchy/kissing during an after network event and then left with that person. Which is totally normal in many fields! As for evidence, I’m doubtful she left out a used condom. Evidence can be as simple as some empty booze bottles and a rumpled couch. That’s a lot to walk into on a Monday morning, but I’d say still falls in the ignorable range.

  42. Clementine*

    I have not tried to do so, but this sort of letter makes me nervous because it seems like it could be relatively easy to figure out which company.

    Even if the CEO and her boyfriend are polyamorous, it’s highly unlikely that means he supports her having sex in the office with multiple employees. Whether or not to tell the boyfriend — get a new job first, is my advice.

  43. Third username*

    While the gender info. was a good point to make, I think it diluted the message a little too much. If the boss were just sleeping around, then okay let’s talk about how women are judged more harshly than men, but she is having sex in a shared work space. I’m sorry, but it’s gross, and I don’t need or want to know. Not cool. I would consider mentioning it to a different manager.

  44. Been There*

    I had a boss who was having sex with several woman (well, not at the same time, thank goodness) during work hours in his office. They were not subtle about it at all. Someone may or may not have sent an anonymous note to his wife and the board of directors. Wife suddenly spent a lot of time just hanging out in the office until shortly after that he left to pursue other opportunities. Although I was relieved he had gone, I never sat on the couch in his office again.

  45. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    I think someone already pointed this out, but C-suite means the executive officers whose titles begin with “Chief”. So it may not be the CEO. The “public face” of the company could be the chief operations officer or even the chief communications officer.

  46. Mazarin*

    I am a bit suprised by people saying ” this is not normal” This Should Not be normal. But there have been multiple articles about the oversexualization of women in tech. I am not suprised if some women in tech see it as the best/only way to be included/get ahead. (And there are some women who have admitted to this happening; its very difficult if you are within that system and it is ‘expected’, and you are youmg/inexperienced/do not have a strong mentor). Most of the articles that come top of the searches (Guardian, NYT) focus on inappropriate behaviour by males, rather than females, but if you read the articles they do talk about the pressure and expectations put onto women to be sexualised. This female ‘boss’ has obviously lost a way a bit, but she won’t be the only one in startup Tech that is true of.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      This is a spin on the early days. Back in the 80s tech women were sexualized and considered non-players. Women responded by hiding their femininity – wearing suits (dress for success) and doing everything to appear genderless.
      This started to relax in the 90s when women could actually wear a dress or sweater set to the office and still be considered part of the team.
      In the 00s women could pretty much dress and act how they wanted. Somewhere along the line people expanded this as acting sexual in the workplace with no repercussions. I think the message was “if you want to be one of the boys you have to act like them”. This is the same message we got in the 80s, except then it was put up with hazing, sports, drinking etc. Now it’s acting sexual. But in both cases it’s the same – acting male in order to get accepted.

      So we are now back to square one, women being sexualized and treated as non-players.
      It’s really frustrating to watch.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        In theory if all women refused to be sexual to get ahead or please their male coworkers, then companies that require that would lose good employees, who would go to better companies, and the better companies would do better than the misogynistic companies in the long run. I hope more women can stand up and refuse to be sexualized/taken advantage of because no job is worth that. If there are women who want to behave this way, it’s better to keep it in your personal life.

  47. Chatterby*

    LW-do you know any of the “other men” she sneaks around with at the office? i.e. are they your coworkers, and therefore, your boss’s underlings?
    I say this because if you think they might feel pressured or required to allow her sexual advances, in any way, that definitely increases the onus on you to report this behavior, instead of quietly finding a new job to get away from this boss. It’s very possible they’re reluctant to go to HR themselves because it would be embarrassing or they think they won’t be taken seriously.

Comments are closed.