Cecilia Ford Ph.DCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Today she counsels a high-level executive who has been reprimanded for a line she denies crossing: seductive behavior in the workplace.

 Dear Dr. Ford:

I am 45 and divorced.  I have had a long career in high-level sales, where most of my peers are men.  I have always been comfortable with the teams I have worked with for the last 20 years.  I dress up for work with good-looking dresses and heels—nothing overtly sexy, but not dowdy, either.  I enjoy the banter with the boys and the harmless flirting.  I have never crossed a line at work with the flirting.  It has always been my sales shtick, and it has been good for business, since I knew the boundaries.

One month ago I took clients to dinner with one of the men on my team. The most important man in that company had a little too much to drink, and my work buddy and the other two men casually left early . . . and all at once. It took no time for this guy to try to put the physical moves on me, and then he actually propositioned me.  I have to admit that I did lose my temper, but I tried to remember that jobs are scarce for women who get the salary I do and just told him to sober up and that I would forget what he had done.

The next day my boss called me into his office and read me the riot act.  He blamed me for a “dinner gone wrong, a deal gone sour.”  He told me that I should have left immediately with the other guys instead of staying around to flirt.  He actually blamed me for the possible loss of an account. He told me that he was disappointed in my seductive behavior at work.  It was clear that he had discussed all of this with HR and legal by the way he spoke to me.  

I have become panic stricken about the potential loss of my job.  I started wearing pants suits and no jewelry and am second-guessing everything I say to everyone.  None of my peers have invited me to join them after work, and I have not been asked to attend any evening events where clients are being entertained.  I feel like I am being marginalized.

I did nothing wrong, but now my world is coming apart.  

Is there anything I can do?



Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Terri:

Your question is complicated, because it brings up many tricky issues that have long plagued women in the workplace. There are many social and political issues in the mix. While in some ways it brings up anger at the idea that “the victim” is being victimized, your best option as an individual is to evaluate as honestly as you can how this happened and what you can best do to help yourself.

Yes, there are some things you can do—starting with trying to remain calm and look at the situation from all angles. This has been a frightening event, but all is not lost and perhaps it can serve as a wake-up call and guide your future behavior. You certainly don’t want to be marginalized, and while there are aspects of this situation that seem unfair and even outrageous, you must keep your eye on your main goal—to keep your job and improve the situation at work.

I’m sure in some ways you feel you are being blamed for someone else’s bad behavior (the drunken client), and to some extent this is true. But your letter suggests that you are aware of your allure and you use it—i.e. the ‘harmless flirting” you referred to. This incident proves to you, however, that flirting can be dangerous—if not to others, then to you. While it may be something you feel you can control (in the office, with colleagues that you know and who are sober), a client, both less known to you but also more important to your job, must always be handled especially carefully. Obviously, you should have left with your male colleagues, though it seems like they left so suddenly that you were caught up short. Next time you will be forewarned. While I’m not excusing his behavior at all, the demands of your job are such that it is up to you to maintain control as much as possible. That can be difficult when socializing is part of the mix, so the question becomes how to keep your balance.

Women are constantly being given conflicting messages: rewarded for being attractive, but blamed if our looks stir up unwanted feelings. While I’m not sure it is necessary to completely change your style and go all “Janet Reno,” your boss has pointed out that your behavior at work is seductive. Try to think through what that means. Is he re-evaluating things retrospectively in order to make his point, or has your behavior been less professional than would be ideal? It is probable that you can tone down your interactive style without completely changing your wardrobe.

I am wondering if he spoke to HR and legal as a way of defending the company against a potential complaint from you. I would be proactive and do a few things right away. First, if at all possible find a female colleague whom you trust and ask her what she (honestly) thinks about the situation. It may be that another woman in the company has had similar challenges finding the “right tone” for the office. Second, I would arrange another meeting with your boss and tell him that you have taken his feedback to heart. Explain that you realize in retrospect that it was your responsibility to keep control of the situation, and in the future you will be much more aware of the dangers inherent in social interactions with clients.

Finally, I would do some soul-searching and ask yourself to what extent you may have been using your sexuality too much in the work setting. For many women, especially if they are used to getting attention from men, there is an undeniable “secondary gain” from flirting—that is, it gratifies a part of our ego that needs massaging. This is especially true if you are not in a relationship. Perhaps you need to focus more on finding male attention outside of work. It will be good for your life, and ultimately, your work as well.

Dr. Cecilia Ford

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