By Kate McGuinness
Published in Forbes, June 18, 2012
Women law school graduates should be warned that law is a sexist profession.
Sexual discrimination is widespread and sexual harassment occurs all too often.
He’s Persistent, Offensive and Powerful
Here’s a recent real life example of sexual harassment told by an associate’s therapist: A partner in a one-on-one meeting with a female associate leans over and says, “I’d really love to kiss you right now.”
Then he barrages her with e-mails about how hot she is.
What’s a girl to do?
Some would suggest she has only three alternatives.
She can ignore him, she can leave the firm or she can take her problem to the partner charged with handling such problems. Each of these choices has serious downsides.
If she goes to the designated “complaint” partner, that will chill the harasser, but he’ll be angry.
She and the harasser won’t work together again, and that may hurt her career depending on how big his book of business is or how many other partners specialize in his type of work.
Ignoring him rarely solves the problem because they’re working on a matter together and he’s determined to have his way with her.
If she leaves without complaint, her chances of getting another job will be better because she hasn’t been branded a troublemaker. But she will leave behind her colleagues and the institutional esteem she has earned during her tenure.
If you find yourself in similar circumstances – and how many women have not – I’d like to suggest five responses that may defuse the conflict and preserve your career at the same time.
Use humor to deflect the harasser’s interest and to underscore the possible consequences of his actions. Choose a riposte suited your style and the situation but here are a couple of suggestions:
I’ll put that in my Title VII file as humor . . . unless you intended something else.
Or, you might put your cell phone to your ear and say, It’s Clarence Thomas calling. He wants to know how you plan to get away with this.
[Editors note: Or, as the woman managing partner of my old law firm said to a notorious harasser when he asked her what she thought women saw whenever he entered the room, the top of your head. In a far worse situation where a firm partner literally exposed himself to a young associate, she just started laughing and said, I’ve never seen one that small before. You get the picture – don’t threaten them; humiliate them – much better results]
Put It in Writing
Begin with the first episode of harassment by creating a detailed written account of what he said, what he did, and how you felt.
Did you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or threatened?
If you don’t confront your harasser, include in your new journal why you didn’t. Did you believe he’d retaliate?
Did you respond with humor in an attempt to deflect his advances?
Whatever you did can be “spun” later as enjoyment. Make sure that doesn’t happen by getting your story in writing on the same day the harassment begins.
Invite Him Out for Coffee and Read Him Your Rights
Third, if the humorous attempt doesn’t deter the harasser, schedule an appointment to meet with him about a “serious problem” she’s having. If you get together over lunch in a restaurant, that gives the you the advantage of a neutral public place.
In this meeting, you should be excruciatingly clear and direct about experiencing his attempts to seduce or “flatter” you as harassing.
Say, I don’t welcome your sexual conduct and Title VII – the law that ensures me a workplace free of sexual harassment – says you’re required to stop engaging in that conduct if it’s unwelcome.
Depending on his response, you might incorporate two other points.
Unless he’s a total boor, educating him about how his harassment makes you feel may be helpful.
If he has a daughter, your might ask him how he would respond if his daughter’s employer were to treat her in a similar manner someday.
Send Him a Written Warning
If none of these attempts to deter your harasser fail to shut him down, calmly tell him that if he doesn’t stop, you will have no alternative other than going to the partner in charge of such matters.
You might add, I don’t want to take that step, but I’ll start there before calling Gloria Allred.
Include a detailed description of this meeting in the notes you’re taking as this unpleasant set of events has unfolded.
Depending on how egregious his conduct has been, you may or may not want to add disclaimers about hoping you can continue to work together on a strictly professional basis.
If he just can’t stop himself, write a memo to him repeating the substance of the script described above, attaching your notes and reiterating your resolve to involve firm administration if necessary.
Have your assistant place the memo in a sealed envelope and personally deliver it to the harasser. Your assistant should write a note confirming the date and time the delivery was made.
Take it to a Higher Authority
Some knuckleheads may continue their harassment despite your having taken every precaution to warn him of the consequences of his behavior.
This is the time at which you need to set up a meeting with your mentor or, better yet, sponsor if you have one, remembering that a mentor is someone who teaches you the ropes and a sponsor is someone who is willing to put their skin in your game.
Explain the problems you’ve had with your harasser and deliver a copy of the paper trail you’ve been creating.
After laying this groundwork, ask her mentor or sponsor to speak to the harasser on your behalf. News of this person’s proclivities will not be a surprise to your ally. Once they’re in receipt of this information, it becomes their personal and professional problem as well. For all you know, several complaints have been lodged against this boorish superior and your complaint might well be the last piece of evidence the firm needs to shut him down and throw him out.
Whenever you confront an office harasser, you’re not only doing yourself a favor, you’re protecting the professional well-being of all women in the workforce. It’s good for you, good for the firm, and good for the economy.