If You Dig A Little Deeper… »« Very Much OK

Feelings And Actions

He felt he was in love again—so many years had passed
And every time he saw her face, his heart would beat so fast

It happened out in public—you could see it all along
But surely, it was out of love, and could not, thus, be wrong

He never hid his feelings—he was sure to let them show
And because he signed her paychecks, well, she couldn’t tell him ‘no’

He never went ‘too far’, of course—that anyone could tell
And if she felt uncomfortable, she hid it very well

He always was a charmer—he never was a jerk
He loved the way her hair would gleam, and she? She needed work.

He acted out of love, you see—it couldn’t be his fault
He saw it as a friendship… but she saw it as assault.

There is no end to the “advice” given to the victims of sexual harassment and assault. They should have done this differently, or that differently, or worn different clothes, or not smiled, or smiled more, or not been so friendly, or not so distant, or any of dozens of other mutually impossible things. So you can look for that advice elsewhere. This is for the people who are actually at fault.

I had a friend who engaged in sexual harassment. I was there when it happened, and did not see it. This advice is your chance to learn from my mistake. (The harassed woman did go to my friend’s supervisor, and he was disciplined and counseled, and the situation was resolved to her satisfaction. All of which I learned about much later, when I learned that what I had been witnessing was, in fact, harassment.)

My friend openly confided that he was utterly smitten with X. They seemed to have a great working relationship. She was working in his lab, on an honors project, gathering and crunching data. He was her advisor. I could go into more detail, but I’d rather not.

Now, it is entirely possible that he knew exactly what he was doing, and was deliberately manipulating the situation–including my own perceptions of what was happening–to his own end. That is quite possible. But I’m going to assume, for now, that what he told me was honest, was his very real reaction, and that he had no intention of harm whatsoever.

He was still in the wrong. He was still harassing, creating a hostile workplace, and perhaps more. It was not up to her to make his boundaries clear; he was in a position of power over her. It does not matter what his motivation was; what matters is his behavior, and his behavior was inappropriate.

Our culture thrives on stories of motivation, especially the ultimate motivation, love. Romantic comedies show us that stalking is ok, as long as it is for true love (which will be rewarded in the final reel). The old fogeys among us might remember what a cultural event it was when Luke and Laura got married; they met, of course, when he raped her. Love conquers all.

No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that my friend was in love (or claimed to be–for today’s purposes, I am assuming he is being honest). Actions do not have to be motivated by a desire for control, or power, or dominance; behavior does not have to reflect misogyny, or hatred, or disdain. The road to criminal behavior may be paved with the best of intentions.

Motivation is no excuse. Don’t search your feelings; look at your behavior. If you are in a privileged position, it is never up to your subordinate to set limits. By the time someone corrects your behavior, you have gone too far.

His case is what changed my thinking on this–I hope that, in a similar situation, I would now know better. I did nothing at the time, because I saw nothing. I was looking at his motivation, not at his behavior. I was wrong.

Learn from my mistake.

Comments

  1. smhll says

    He was still in the wrong. He was still harassing, creating a hostile workplace, and perhaps more. It was not up to her to make his boundaries clear; he was in a position of power over her. It does not matter what his motivation was; what matters is his behavior, and his behavior was inappropriate.

    Right. She has a lot to lose if she confronts him and disappoints him and his romantic urges. And it would cost her a lot, in terms of her career, for her to leave. The power imbalance has her (figuratively) cornered.

    Do you think your friend ever considered why there are rules about boss/employee interactions and teacher/student interactions, even for students who are legal adults?

  2. Cuttlefish says

    (Again assuming he was being utterly honest with me) I don’t think it ever crossed his mind that this was anything inappropriate whatsoever. He was not trying to manipulate her into a relationship, he was simply happy that they found one another attractive, and were enjoying one another’s company.

    He was focused on feelings, and utterly ignored behavior, in my opinion. It is easy to do.

  3. Joan says

    Am I missing something here? If the gentleman is interested in the lady, then he asks her out. If she refuses, (and it may take a few refusals if he is dense) then that’s his clue that she is not interested in him in that way. If she was interested once, as it seemed to indicate in this case, then she’s not anymore.. Anything after that on his part is harassment even out of the workplace. Inside the workplace it must have been hell for her, especially in the close confines of a lab. It’s his playpen and her cage. And he was her teacher? Arrrgh!! Thank goodness she had some recourse.

  4. Pliny the in Between says

    “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.” Burke

    Thank you for the important post. Women coming forward iis one part of the solution. Men of good conscience refusing to condone (or intervening when seen) such behavior is another.

  5. Thorne says

    I’m curious about something. Isn’t it possible that the supervisor could truly be in love with his (or her) subordinate and would like to pursue a possible relationship without it becoming harassment? Does the fact that the supervisor signs the paychecks automatically preclude him (or her) from showing any romantic interest in the subordinate?

    Yes, I can see the problem: if the subordinate is not interested in such a relationship, she (or he) might feel pressured to submit to the supervisor to protect their job, but are we justified in automatically assuming that the supervisor would use such a threat over the employee? Yeah, I know it happens, all too frequently. And I agree wholeheartedly that a supervisor who would use his position to coerce a subordinate like that would be totally wrong and should be held accountable.

    But how can a supervisor who isn’t trying to coerce the subordinate make his attraction known without running the risk of the subordinate automatically assuming such coercion?

  6. says

    @5, Thorne

    He can leave it alone until such a time as the object of his affection is not in any way a subordinate of his, or dependent on his influence for her career.

  7. Kierra says

    @Thorne (#5)

    No. Just no. There’s no way to erase the power dynamic as long as they still have a supervisor/subordinate relationship. And besides all the problems with coercion, there’s also all the issues of supervisor favoritism to the subordinate (likely to the detriment of other subordinates who don’t give the supervisor warm fuzzies).

    If the supervisor is truly in love with the subordinate than the correct action is to get the subordinate a position in another lab (with the excuse that said supervisor is unable to perform his duty to said subordinate appropriately). Once they do not have a supervisor/subordinate relationship, the former-supervisor could maybe attempt to pursue a romance.

  8. Cuttlefish says

    Thorne–put yourself in the shoes of the subordinate: how can you know whether it is real or manipulation? Let’s assume that Boss really does love Underling–If Boss cares, why on earth would xe put Underling into a position of having to discern the undiscernable, with the cost of getting it wrong ranging from losing a job to being raped? Why would you put someone you care about into that position?

    So… arguably, the motivation to pursue a relationship while still in the current position is not love, but self-interest (for purposes of argument, I’m going to artificially separate the two–that is an argument for another time). Boss’s potential downside is nothing compared to Underling’s, so the rules must work to try to alleviate that imbalance.

    (That said, the official legal/professional ethics view may be different. I have asked an expert for input on this.)

  9. quidam says

    It is always a problem when a boss/manager/supervisor becomes, or tries to become, intimate with a subordinate. Even if (s)he’s totally willing or even instigates it. How can a person objectively manage or supervise someone (s)he’s involved with?

    It puts both parties at risk. The supervisor can be bribed (to provide promotions, raises, good reviews) with sex, the subordinate can be pressured to give it (with promotions, raises, good reviews). And you can be sure that if the relationship goes sour, both will suffer.

    That was the real problem with Clinton/Lewinski incident. It wasn’t the illicit BJ, it was that the president put himself in a position where he could be pressured by an intern. And that she was, although apparently willing, pressured his power and status.

  10. pandora says

    Thorne, what would the boss do if she was in a monogamous relationship? And why would that be any different? Most men are more respectful of another man’s “property rights” (believing it’s wrong to hit on another d00d’s woman, even if they do it) than they are of a woman’s right to her own boundaries.

    In other words, I doubt your hypothetical boss would blithely assume her monogamous relationship something to be solved so his penis could be accommodated. He might be a jerk and still hit on her but at least he’d acknowledge he’s being a jerk, if only to himself. Her personal autonomy as a woman simply trying to do a job presents no such moral dilemma to Mr. Hypothetical Boss.

    There is something wrong with that picture.

  11. says

    @5: It’s quite possible for a supervisor to have a crush on a subordinate. Happens all the time. In any workplace with more than 20 employees, I would suspect the strong likelihood is that it’s going on right now. That’s a lot of workplaces.

    However, federal law and corporate policies mitigate against that supervisor doing anything about it while that person is still a subordinate. There’s not one competent human resources person in the US (and quite probably anywhere in the western world) who would condone a romantic relationship between a supervisor and her direct subordinate.

    If you want to pursue a romantic relationship with someone, transfer yourself out of a position of authority over that person. Otherwise, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

    I’ll admit it; I’ve supervised women who I thought were pretty darned special. I would have pursued a romantic relationship with them — but that pesky law stopped me short. That and, frankly, the ethics of it. I did not think it ethical to pursue someone romantically when I was in a position of authority over them.

    Did I miss the “love of my life”? Probably not, but who knows? Can I sleep really well at night, knowing I acted in accordance with my personal ethics, no matter what the law said I could or could not do? You betcha.

  12. rickk says

    Thorne said: “Does the fact that the supervisor signs the paychecks automatically preclude him (or her) from showing any romantic interest in the subordinate?”

    Does it preclude him or her from FEELING romantic interest? No.

    Does it preclude him or her from SHOWING romantic interest? Absolutely

    The agreement I made with my wife absolutely precludes me from showing romantic interest to another person. If I break that agreement, I expect to get divorced.

    The agreement I made with my employer absolutely precludes me from showing romantic interest to a subordinate. If I break that agreement, I expect to be fired.

    That’s the deal.

  13. moarscienceplz says

    re the ‘Luke and Laura’ reference:
    One of my favorite James Bond movies is Thunderball. But there is a scene early in where JB threatens to complain to a woman’s boss that she was negligent unless she has sex with him. So, even the sexiest man in the world thinks blackmail is a perfectly fine tool to get him another notch on his belt. IANA fan of prejudice, but I’m starting to think that men over about age 40 have been so steeped in this toxic misogyny brew that it is better to assume that they are potential harassers than that they are not. BTW, I am a guy in my mid-fifties.

  14. says

    @Kierra (7)
    “If the supervisor is truly in love with the subordinate than the correct action is to get the subordinate a position in another lab”

    Umm…no. There’s the rub. The supervisor would then be using the power position to disrupt the subordinates working situation because of the supervisor’s desires.

    The proper course, if the supervisor wishes to follow the attraction, is for the supervisor to resign the position.

  15. Thorne says

    Yeah, some pretty good responses there. Even some things I’d not considered before hand. Fortunately I’ve never been placed in either position, so I’ve not had to deal with such things personally. There was once a job I had where an assistant manager was sleeping with a secretary, but she worked directly for the manager, not the assistant. Still, there were plenty of people who automatically assumed she was getting preferential treatment because of it.

    pandora @ 10:

    Most men are more respectful of another man’s “property rights” (believing it’s wrong to hit on another d00d’s woman, even if they do it) than they are of a woman’s right to her own boundaries.

    The more I read about these issues, the more I’m grateful that I’m not like “most men”. However, in the case of a woman wearing a wedding or engagement ring, I would view that as being a boundary which she chose to display, not a symbol of someone else’s “property rights.”

    quidam @ 9

    That was the real problem with Clinton/Lewinski incident. It wasn’t the illicit BJ, it was that the president put himself in a position where he could be pressured by an intern. And that she was, although apparently willing, pressured his power and status.

    This illustrates another issue, though. In some sense, in any kind of business environment, there will always be some aspect of superior/subordinate. If you’re the POTUS, then technically everyone in the country is subordinate to you. You can almost make or break anyone with the flourish of a pen. Casting aside the fact that he was already married, you could view ANY relationship Clinton might have had as one of superior to subordinate, couldn’t you? Hell, even in a restaurant or bar setting, as a customer couldn’t I be considered to be able to put undue influence on an attractive waitress? The bribe of a very high tip, or the threat of a complaint to the owner?

    Well, being old and ugly, I don’t have to worry about any powerful, attractive woman putting pressure on me for sex. And knowing that I’m old and ugly, I don’t have the lunacy of thinking that I’m irresistible to every attractive woman I see. No pressure here, ladies! I just like to look. I can still do that, can’t I?

  16. Leah says

    DanDare *16

    I was thinking that Kierra was suggesting the subordinate move to another lab if they both express interest in each other and they agree on the move. Although it definitely does have a bit of that dentist firing his assistant because she was too pretty ring to it.

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