A woman lies about her sexual orientation to deflect unwanted attention. How can employees gain confidence to speak their truth in uncomfortable or inappropriate situations? When are white lies a good strategy?
It’s not you, it’s me. And her.
During my previous job at a tech company, I had to deal with the temperamental advances and tantrums of a 40+yo Director-level guy, who I’ll refer to as “Dwight from down the hall.”
I was 23, fresh out of school, armed with an Ivy League education in Literature and working my first “real” job in tech. As part of a career acceleration program for recent college graduates, we were all tasked with finding two mentors. I worked together with my manager to select mentors that were aligned with my interests in startup outreach programs and working with entrepreneurs.
It started when “Dwight from down the hall” called me into his office and asked me why I didn’t think he was mentor-material, after all, he was the PR Director for one of the company’s startup accelerators. Nobody said I couldn’t have three mentors, so I promptly apologized and told him I was honored that he was interested in mentoring me.
Because his office was two doors down from mine, our formal, scheduled 1:1s devolved into biweekly lunches in the cafeteria and casual office drop-ins. Let me preface the rest of this story by confessing that I was a terrible employee. The worst. I had no idea how to navigate the corporate terrain. When people asked me what I did for a living, I told them I was conducting important anthropological research on the symbiotic relationship between dysfunctional mega-corporations and their hamsters-on-wheels worker drones. I still tell people that. My only other work experience was an apprenticeship with a violinmaker in high school, but that’s really no excuse for how awful I was at doing my job. I was a self-entitled “millennial” brat who drove a brand new Mercedes E350 to work every day and thought she was too smart for the entry-level work her manager gave her. I skip-leveled to get bright, shiny projects and impress my boss’ boss’ boss, but botched any project that I deemed too boring to attend to. Needless to say, I harbored a contentious relationship with my direct manager and members of my immediate team.
I confided many of my misguided frustrations to this Dwight character. He’d become less of a mentor and more of a…shitty therapist. One afternoon, he was laying down on the couch of my office as I mindlessly formatted Excel spreadsheets and whined about my job. I remember flirting with the idea of outsourcing the menial parts of my job to TaskRabbit. It was during that session, that he invited me to his residence to continue our discussion in a more private environment. I had my own private office and the door was closed, so I didn’t feel the need to change scenery and declined. The next day, I received an email notification that all our 1:1s had been canceled. I found this odd, but we hadn’t really been adhering to them anyways, so I didn’t dwell. I noticed that Dwight stopped dropping in for chats, but figured he was busy with launching his new program, or that he was sick of hearing me whine.
A couple weeks later, Dwight pinged me on Lync and requested my audience in his office. Without any preamble, he very abruptly announced that he was in love with me and that we should date. I was a little stunned, more by the method of delivery than by the proclamation itself. I carefully told him I was flattered but that I wasn’t interested.
Dwight was angry. In a voice that was about 20 decibels too loud to be considered appropriate, he accused me of flirting with him, leading him on, wasting his time, and in the same breath he used the “L” word, he dropped the “B” bomb. This confrontation occurred in his office during normal work hours.
Two weeks later I get this series of pseudo-apologetic messages on Lync:
Dwight: I just wanted you to tell you I was thinking about you.
Dwight: I thought you looked very pretty the other day in that blouse.
Dwight: Wanted to mention it but didn’t want to be awkward and now I can’t help myself. Lol.
(42 mins later)
Dwight: So how do I interpret your silence is it a fuck off or a speechless?”
When I reiterated to Dwight that I wasn’t interested, he accused me of being selfish and a sociopath. After sulking for a few days, he came back, apologized for saying those terrible things, apologized for being in love with me, probed deeply for reasons why I found him unworthy of my romantic attention. Sometimes, he was clinical in his approach, as if he was diagnosing my inability to reciprocate his feelings. DwightMD concluded that my non-love for him was merely a symptom of some terrible, greater psychopathy known as “being a fucking bitch.” This routine repeated itself incessantly on a bi-weekly cadence, same script, like clockwork. I never caved, I never exploded. I also never banned him from entering my office. I played pretend that I was starring in the most boring musical on Broadway, and my role as Bitchy Robot was to recite my lines in the most monotone voice I could muster.
Reruns of “Dwight and the Bitchy Robot,” were interrupted when I went away to training seminars in Seattle. When I returned, Dwight gave me a very impressive silent+no eye contact treatment that lasted 2 months. During this shunning period, he simultaneously experimented with some retaliatory tactics that I won’t delve deeply into, except to say that they weren’t very well executed and any mediocre Jim Halpert would have prevailed. In fact, I derived Machiavellian pleasure maneuvering my way around his transparent attempts to undermine my work and shut me out of all the fun, sparkly projects I wanted to be on.
During this time, I also started dating “Hailey,” a developer on my team who worked in the same hall. We thought we were pretty discreet about our relationship, but as it turns out, we were about as discreet as my bright white Mercedes was in an employee parking lot full of dusty blue Priuses.
News trickled down the hall to Dwight that I was dating a female coworker. He came to my office one evening and apologized for how he had acted, and the things he’d said. Afterall, he didn’t know I was a lesbian, “which is totally cool, and explains so much.” By the way, he lowered his voice…”you guys are so cute together.”
I’m not one to dwell, so I shrugged and uttered some gibberish about how everyone has their moments. A couple days later, he asked me to collaborate on a project with him by inviting startup founders I knew from my personal network to judge a startup pitch competition sponsored by the company. “Sure!” I chirped. He gave me considerable recognition for managing the program, and I cashed in on that, along with several other initiatives Dwight looped me into, during performance review season. It helped me secure my bonus and a “Marketing Excellence” award, even though I had been an insufferable, insubordinate brat to my immediate manager all year long.
Dwight and I had a great working professional relationship from that day forward. You know, the day he found out that I was dating a girl…that day. Even though I later went on to date a guy, he simply assumed that I was closet lesbian deep down inside and expressed sympathy for my poor unwitting boyfriend. The male ego can be a very potent hallucinogen.
What were your takeaways in hindsight?
Since Dwight, I’ve had considerable success spurning unwanted romantic advances by playing the lesbian card. I’ve managed to diffuse at least 2 awkward workplace situations and many more personal ones that involved individuals who work in the tech industry. When I reject a man, he might start comparing himself to the other males I choose to spend my time with: maybe if I’m more assertive, maybe if I’m more successful, maybe if I’m more like that other guy she dates… It leaves the door unlocked.
When I reject a man because I’m seeing a woman, it becomes less of a personal affront; the rejection can’t be taken as an attack to their ego, and the nonsense stops right there. And I’ve never met a man who wants me so badly he’s willing to turn his penis into a vagina.
The truth is, I’m not lesbian. I’ve dated women from time to time, but only 2 of them were serious relationships. The truth is, most guys that I’ve spurned think that I am a closet lesbian and I’m ok with that. The truth is, I don’t care that Dwight acted like a big 40yo baby when I rejected him. That’s his problem.
At the end of the day, Dwight found a way to make reparations and express his unrequited love for me in more productive ways. Ways that were useful to me. Everything else is just salty water under the bridge.