By Carolyn J. Palo
“Hiya sexy!” rang through the stockroom. My ears perked up as I haven’t heard a greeting like that in a workplace environment in a very long time, if ever. The fact that the greeting was directed at me was even more surprising. “Hmmm…” I thought. I didn’t respond or react, as I do believe this guy had really “slipped.” Over the threshold of forty, I am certainly flattered that someone finds me attractive, but how to react when the expression is in the workplace? As a corporate professional firstly, and retail sales associate secondly, I had attended many seminars and HR events focused on proper workplace behavior. Everyone knows the rules. So I thought. I felt I needed to react, but I didn’t.
Other younger women (and men) had heard this and were looking to me to respond. By not responding, I wasn’t acknowledging the behavior, or the fact that someone is trying to pay me a compliment that just isn’t appropriate amongst my co-workers. I just wanted to assume that he was kidding. I let it slide.
I mentioned this episode to a few girlfriends of mine and wondered what they thought. My dear friend “Kate” blurted out “That’s nothing!” A recent divorce had put her into a status that she “never-in-a-million-years” thought she would have to contend with. Since her last pregnancy, breastfeeding for the second time had taken a toll on her. She decided, with her husband’s blessing to have a breast enhancement, “to even things out.” She admitted that she went up a size. “I never thought I would be divorced, they were for me, but for my husband as well.” An unexpected turn of events had her managing through a second difficult divorce and now, unexpectedly becoming a single mom of two. As a successful sales rep who traveled regularly, she found that her new singleness was bringing more suggestive comments at the office as well as from clients. “I’ve been asked point blank, “Are those real?” When I asked her response she said “I mostly ignore it…I’m one of the few females in my division, and I don’t want problems.” Problems meaning, possibly losing her job, or creating disharmony among her colleagues or clients who, for the most part were “always respectful and behaved as gentlemen.” Since divorcing, I feel like more of a target, less respected, and it makes me sad.” “This recession doesn’t help.”
I then realized that the recession has had other ramifications on the working than on the non-working. “I’m trying hard to hang on, and I overlook a lot, I don’t have the energy to deal with harassment, I’ve got too many other things to manage, and my mortgage is one of them.” She is not alone in her thinking. Women taking “stop gap” jobs, going back to restaurant work to supplement income or unemployment are also letting borderline casual comments or innuendo slide. “Hey, when it’s your tip, you have to grin and bear it.” Another friend who was a former account executive in financial services firm has taken a part-time job in retail. She said she’s faced similar situations. “I look at it as a part-time job and hopefully not for the long term, I tune out a lot.” “The rules are the same, yet people here seem to have their own interpretation of what is “culturally acceptable.” Hmmm…
I worry that “tuning it out” is turning into a backslide in appropriate workplace behavior. As for me, I contemplated the sexy comment. I even played it down. Yet, I knew I had to say something, not just for myself, but for the others who had also heard the comment. I put it in an email to my boss, cloaked in a “good news-bad news” format. “The good news is, I had a great sales day. The bad news is, Louis greeted me this morning with “Hiya Sexy.” I stated that although I felt he “slipped” it needed to be addressed, for me, but also for the other ears in the immediate area. One co-worker of mine supportively said, “You had to say something, afterall, he could have us all thinking that you two have something going, and I know you don’t, but that’s how rumors get started.” He was right.
The ending to this is to continue to speak up, for yourself and for others. Keep a respectful workplace, as best you can. Your co-workers are relying on it.