Disempowerment and harassment from a superior – how can candidates for jobs or employees respond to quid pro quo offers for advancement?
When I was early in my career working overseas, a powerful wealthy businessman I met at a conference invited me to “interview” to serve as a US liaison for his company. I accepted an invitation to meet him at his apartment. When I arrived, he was the only person there. He wasted little time in laying out a proposal where I could become his mistress in exchange for investing in a business he would help me start. “Don’t you have a wife?” I asked. He shared that they lived apart and he was free to do what he wanted. He leaned over at one point to kiss me (a man 40+ years my senior!) and I froze. The experience of physical contact left me feeling polluted and frightened. This particular individual had ties to organized crime and government power brokers, and I was treading on dangerous ground as an expat. He handed me a pile of expensive jewelry and took down my bank information so he could wire me money. I said I would think it over and get back to him.
How did you respond?
After leaving the building I immediately called a friend who returned the jewelry to the concierge of the apartment building. I bought a new SIM card and got a new bank card for my account (in that country, transfers were tied to a debit card number). We composed a carefully crafted, culturally appropriate text that went something like “Oh great wise one, I am unworthy of your attention and prefer to learn from your business acumen in other ways.” In other words, an extremely flowery and obsequious rejection. The next several months, I carefully observed my surroundings to make sure I was not being followed. He never responded to my text, and I never saw him again. I ended up returning to the U.S. for my next job the following year, and was finally able to rest easy that I would not encounter this individual again.
What were your takeaways in hindsight?
I’ve often wondered why I wasn’t able to stand up to this man in the moment since I was clearly not attracted to him nor interested in his proposal. I have several theories: 1) Perhaps I was just curious to see what would happen and let the meeting play out. 2) Did I perhaps entertain his proposal for a brief second and hedge my bets by not walking out? 3) I was afraid he had leverage to hurt me if I offended him. 4) The survival of female primate offspring is positively correlated with their mother’s social bonds to other female troupe members. As a human female primate I have inherited this biological predisposition to avoid social conflicts as an evolutionary optimization strategy. 5) I am just a generally conflict avoidant individual and was not not as self-confident in my mid-twenties.
Regardless of the reason, I am extremely thankful to the friend who helped extract me from the situation and think I made a wise decision by distancing myself from this powerful individual as expediently and thoroughly as possible. There was also an element of compassion that empowered me to let him down gently versus storm out indignantly. The guy was, after all, one of the wealthiest people in the country, and yet there he was by himself in this apartment, separated from his wife, and needing to pay women to spend time with him. He struck me as sad and lonely person. As long as I felt safe, I didn’t feel the need to cut him down.
I learned a lesson about men’s possible motivations for offering to meet in a personal residence, and now NEVER accept this type of invitation unless I am 100% confident other people will be present. I am also far less likely to let my curiosity trump safety considerations.
I went on after this experience to become a successful business development professional, generating nine-figure magnitude value for my company based on performance, leadership, and management ability. In hindsight, taking him up on his offer would have robbed me of the chance to prove myself on merit and destroyed my self-respect. Furthermore, a “contract” of this kind is highly non-transparent and non-enforceable. Taking on work without clearly delineated legal rights and obligations is a formula for abuse.
Watercolor by Charlotte Goff http://www.charlottediane.com