The CEO called me sexy and then acted like it never happened

Watercolor by Charlotte Goff

How can employees effectively handle unwanted, romantic advances from superiors?

What happened?

I had been in my first role in a supposedly “progressive” company for just under a year when we went on a work trip which involved a lot of drinking at dinner. The company had been small but had grown in the preceding year, so there was a narrative of “family” amongst employees, which they were trying to maintain, even though the company was growing too fast for this thread to hold. Because of the celebrated “flat structure” I wasn’t afraid to stay and chat with senior staff. Also, as I have studied and worked in male-dominated environments before, I was used to associating with men without feeling at risk.

As the CEO (substantially older than me) worked in a different department from mine, I had barely spoken to him before but was sitting with him and a number of other staff of mixed levels after dinner. The conversation turned to a few “teething problems” at the company, and individuals became quite vocal about various issues they had had. I had brought up issues of diversity, and the CEO had welcomed my comments and indicated that I was “brave” for bringing them up. After a while, he told everyone that he wanted to stay and continue talking to me about the particular work that I was doing and that they should all leave. His personal assistant, who does not drink and knew he was drunk, checked that he “really wanted to talk about” some of my work. This made me mildly uncomfortable, but he told me that he wanted to hear more from junior staff about the niggles at the company, etc. As his PA seemed only to be looking out for him about the things he might say about other staff members I didn’t leave, although perhaps I should have. We chatted for another two hours or so, and he continued to tell me I was courageous to talk to him honestly about diversity and my issues with some of the work we did as a company. Everything was still OK at this point.

Eventually, he walked out to use the restroom, squeezing my shoulder in an avuncular way as he walked past me (we had been sitting a few seats apart at that stage). When he came back he sat in the seat next to me and told me I was sexy, completely switching the atmosphere of our conversation. I turned away from him, rejected the advance (which had seemed to come from nowhere), changed the topic for a few minutes, and then left the room and went to bed. I expected to have to go through the awkward experience of having him bring it up with me in the following week or so. But he never did. He simply avoided me completely, and we didn’t have a conversation again.

How did you respond?

I did almost nothing about the situation, except immediately investigating opportunities to leave the company and, to a large extent, losing any passion for my work. Unfortunately this appears, from my research, to be the most common response. I do not feel that what he did is in any way OK, but I am a forgiving person, and if he had faced it, and spoken to me afterward to apologize for the disrespect, I would have been more comfortable letting it go. The fact that he simply avoided me from that day on obliterated all respect I had for him, and just made me want to leave. I felt incredibly powerless, as he was so high up in the organization, and I was so low down.

I took a male colleague into my confidence, and he was very supportive but agreed with my suspicion that other people, who had been close colleagues of the CEO from the “family” days, would potentially not believe me. He also believed that one reason that the CEO had not brought it up with me was that that would be a kind of confirmation that it had happened, opening up the opportunity for me to make a formal complaint.

What were your takeaways in hindsight?

I felt disempowered and stupid–having been told for two hours that I was brave and strong, only to be reduced to an object in one single sentence.

It seems that the assumption that I was interested was based entirely on the fact that I was female, and I was in the room having a conversation with a heterosexual man, which as an assumption is incredibly limiting to women in the workplace. The situation is difficult in a company with a small close core like that because it is hard to know whom to trust and if there is anybody who would take your side. I don’t want to be the type of person who is limited in a job because she is too scared to be alone with male colleagues, in case it makes her appear interested. I have, more recently, been investigating corporate sexual harassment training. I think that employees just being aware that sexist jokes are offensive, even if told “ironically,” would at least engender some sensibility amongst colleagues. The same goes for sexual advances. Small companies are difficult because there is so much informality and things tend to be a bit ad hoc.

From now on I will always make sure that anywhere I work has a firm and clear sexual harassment policy in place, or at the very least push for one, no matter how small or new or full of friendships the place is. I still don’t know if I could have done anything differently at that point, but I think ensuring my own protection before that situation occurs would be the wiser way forward.

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