Sexually Suggestive Texts From A Senior Manager You Can’t Afford to Tick Off

Question:

Soon after my former employer furloughed me, I landed a short-term entry-level job. It wasn’t a great job, but I didn’t plan to stay in it.

A few weeks into my employment there, I received suggestive texts from a senior manager. I visited HR and while she promised to investigate, nothing happened. I got the feeling they simply swept the situation under the rug.

After several months, I resigned.

I now work for an engineering consulting firm. One of our largest clients is my former employer. I’m assigned to this client’s project. This means I have to interact with the senior manager.

I plan to take the high road and treat the man professionally, and as if we have no past. For my protection, I briefed my project manager and our HR officer.

Soon after the project started, the senior manager sent me a suggestive text. I didn’t respond to his text, but I sent my own, letting him know I preferred he not text or contact me, except with work- related email. He continues to text me.

I’ve learned he’s engaged in similar behavior with at least three other women in my field, including an entry-level employee at my current company. He calls her several times a week, and she fears that if she blocks his calls, he’ll retaliate against our company with trumped up complaints. So, though his calls make her uncomfortable, she takes them. She’s polite and ends the calls quickly.

He’s somewhat scary. It’s rumored he’s punched a wall in front of a woman. I’ve heard his current employer plans to ignore the rumors and the problem.

How do we manage this? I’m worried that either the entry-level employee or I may wind up in an unpleasant situation if we continue to interact with him. Neither of us sees any other choice. My company can’t afford to fire this client; their business important to our company.

Answer:

The behavior you describe is sexual harassment. Like many sexual harassers, this senior manager uses his position to go after individuals who fear outing him.  

Your employer needs to protect you and your coworker. Employers have a duty to maintain a workplace environment free of sexual harassment. Failure to address sexual harassment creates employer liability. 

The senior manager’s company needs to realize that the ‘environment’ extends beyond the physical workplace and includes all participants in the environment, including outside contractors, vendors and others who interact with an employer’s employees. For this reason, restaurants refuse to serve problem customers.

You’re correct that when a small business relies on client revenue and the potential harasser holds a key position in the client company, this proves difficult. Here’s the good news: In similar situations when our company served professional services firms as their “HR On-call” vendor, we contacted the CEO or HR officer at the client company and let them know they employ a ticking time bomb.

In the situation you describe, I’d contact the CEO. Here’s why: the senior manager likely outranks the HR officer, and thus s/he hasn’t been able to rein him in. The CEO needs to hear that he is complicit in this man’s behavior, and his wallet is at risk.

In every case, if we can prove what we allege, the client company has taken care of the situation. If they don’t, and their problem individual later creates an internal problem after we’ve put them on notice, they face extreme liability.

Your company needs to protect you, and this may mean pulling you off the project. If you or your coworkers have the texts, print and provide them as evidence. During the workday, be professional and polite, however, neither you nor your coworker need to take this man’s calls after hours. Make sure nothing you or your coworker do signals you consent to this man’s unwanted attention. Know that the more often he contacts you, the more evidence he gives you.

Furnish your evidence to your manager and HR officer, knowing that the more often the senior manager contacts you, the more evidence he hands you to end the game he plays.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, https://amzn.to/30V5JO6) and “Solutions”, https://amzn.to/2GYlnAN (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/ or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10. www.workplacecoachblog.com.

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5 thoughts on “Sexually Suggestive Texts From A Senior Manager You Can’t Afford to Tick Off

  1. Lynne,

    I am wondering. Would it be appropriate for the target of the harassment to forward the sexually suggestive text to the CEO or other appropriate individuals in leader ship?

    The sick moron is leaving an evidence trail by putting his disgusting suggestions in writing. I’m most interested to know if this would be a prudent way to proceed.

    Paulette Dale, PhD
    Author, “Did You Say Something, Susan? How Any Woman Can Gain Confidence with Assertive Communication (Feb. 2021)

    1. Hi, Paulette, it’s brave, not necessarily prudent. In this case, the individual who wrote me wanted to make sure her new company didn’t lose their largest client. What works, and what we’ve done dozens of times, is collect a sheaf of these texts, arrange a sit down meeting with the CEO and deliver them in that way. One message at a time is often ignored. A sheaf isn’t so easy to ignore, not with an HR type sitting across the desk from him.:)

  2. Thank you., Lynne. Makes perfect sense. Biding time, collecting and presenting a sheaf of evidence rather than revealing it using a piecemeal approach.

    We’re so fortunate to have you as an advisor when faced with various workplace dilemmas and how to best handle a situation.

    Paulette Dale, Ph.D
    Author, “Did You Say Something, Susan?“ How Any Woman Can Gain Confidence with Assertive Communication (Feb. 2021)

  3. OMG, this is creepy. Your comments are on target and encouraging. Yes, the employer is legally liable (and can be sued if they fail to do anything about it) for investigating and disciplining the sexual harasser. In this day of “alternate truths,’ I wonder if the employer will do some kind of pro forma investigation, claim that there isn’t enough or any actionable evidence, and end it there as having given it their best shot. Then what.

    1. Hi, Sue/Suz, I think that’s what had been happening in the former company (& what has happened in many companies). It’s either an inconclusive investigation, with only the alleged victim & the alleged harasser interviewed, and with the alleged harasser of higher status denying the issue, it falls to the wayside. That’s part of why I advise those I coach to collect multiple texts, because that makes the pattern more clear. So far, when I’ve intervened on behalf of my clients, we’ve also achieved justice.

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