Companies & Industries

Issue: Boss Troubles: A Gray-Area Behavior Problem


How should an employee contend with a well-intentioned but buffoonish supervisor who over-compliments and makes her uncomfortable?

Tara Conroy* winced when her new boss would tell her, "You look especially lovely today" or "You have beautiful flawless skin" even though she knew he meant well.

"Pete was always looking for reasons to compliment people," says Tara, a sales promotion supervisor at a software company. "He was 20 years older than I was and 30 years older than most of the people on my team, so maybe it was his way of trying to be popular and fit in."

Instead of endearing himself to Tara and her team, however, Pete was losing their respect. "He'd thank people profusely for doing routine things, and it was just too much," Tara recalls. "People were thinking, 'Look, all I did was hand you the mail—I didn't climb Mount Olympus.'"

None of the women who worked for Pete thought he was hitting on them, but the compliments caused awkwardness just the same. "A couple of times, he came into my cube when I was putting on lipstick, and he said, 'Don't tamper with perfection,'" recalls Tara. "It made me feel self-conscious. And it was even more awkward when he complimented me on my appearance in front of other people."

Worse, members of Tara's team began making fun of Pete behind his back and teasing Tara about how "especially lovely" she looked.

"A Bad Example"

"It didn't seem really fair for me to let him keep up this behavior that led others to make sport of him," Tara says. "Plus, I was a supervisor, so maybe the underlings were thinking, 'Tara puts up with that kind of talk from her boss, so we all have to put up with this stuff.' I was setting a bad example. Plus, what if someone from another department heard the way Pete talked to me, and it got all twisted? It could start rumors."

Loath though she was to hurt anyone's feelings—especially the feelings of someone who clearly was trying so hard to be nice—Tara took a deep breath, walked in to Pete's office, and asked if they could talk.

"Almost on cue, he said, 'You look especially lovely today.' I said, 'Pete, that's what I want to talk to you about. I understand you don't mean anything inappropriate, but you frequently make comments about my appearance that make me feel embarrassed and awkward. A lot of times you say these things when others are present—it's something other people have said something to me about. So I need to let you know it's a problem.'"

Pete still managed to take it the wrong way. "He said, 'Tara, I'm madly in love with my wife' and started to continue. And I put up my hands and said, 'Pete, stop. This has nothing to do with my thinking you're hitting on me. Not for a minute. I know you're trying to be nice, but it's not appropriate in the office, especially in front of other people, but even when no one else is around, it's inappropriate.' I reiterated that others had commented on it and told him the last thing he or I needed was to have to go down to human resources and explain this."

"The Truth Hurts"

Pete looked embarrassed and a little annoyed, but he seemed to understand. "He said, 'Enough said, Tara. It won't happen anymore.' I felt sorry for him. It's hard to tell someone he's got spinach on his tooth, but it has to be done."

And Tara's approach did work. Pete stopped with the compliments on people's appearances and cut back on the effusive praise about their work.

Apparently, those higher up than Pete had some qualms about him as well, although for different reasons. "He was never really a big-picture, strategy guy, and he didn't understand a lot of the lingo you use at a software company," she recalls. "For a lot of things in life, he just didn't seem to 'get the memo.' If I had gone to HR with complaints about the inappropriate comments, that might have been the last nail in his coffin."

As it was, Pete hung on for a year more after Tara's talk with him—although things were always a little awkward between them—until Pete's supervisor told him he should start looking for another job. Soon after, he found a position at a medical publishing firm and left the software company.

Tara still wonders if she did the right thing by Pete, especially since his compliments didn't add up to sexual harassment. Rather, they fell into a gray area of behavior. Was it really her prerogative to tell another adult how he should behave in an office environment?

*This case study scenario is true. Names and identifying details have been changed.

A supervisor who delights in telling female workers how pretty they are needs behavior modification even though he means no harm

Did Tara Conroy* do the right thing when she asked her boss to stop telling her and other employees how "especially lovely" they look today—even though the man clearly meant well?

Although experts have different ideas about how to go about it, they agree that the flattery needed to stop.

"Even if it's not sexual harassment, it's definitely inappropriate behavior," says Jennifer Maxwell Parkinson, owner of Look Consulting International, an image and business-etiquette consulting firm. "It's one thing to say 'you've done a great job' or 'I love the report you wrote,' or 'thanks for getting that to me so fast.' But talking about someone's appearance so much is stepping over a personal boundary."

Of course, that doesn't mean Pete's remarks constitute sexual harassment, as defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment has more to do with intentionally demeaning employees with comments of a sexual nature or seeking sexual favors from them and basing decisions affecting the employee on whether or not she or he tolerates or accepts such overtures.

Ed's constant attention to the physical appearance of the women in the office could, however, approach "gender harassment." Although it's a little-discussed aspect of discrimination law, the Civil Rights Act protects against it.

"Say that every day, twice a day, your boss says, 'Nice outfit. You look fantastic,' and pretty soon it starts driving you nuts. That might be gender harassment," says John S. Marshall, a Columbus (Ohio) lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases. According to Marshall, gender harassment has to meet four criteria:

1. It interferes with work

2. It's based on gender

3. It's severe or pervasive

4. It's unwelcome.

The first criterion appears to be lacking in Tara's case. The flattery was an annoyance, not an obstruction to work. And Tara had no desire to initiate any litigation against Pete. But who knows whether one of her other co-workers might feel inclined to consult with a lawyer about Pete's conduct?

"I've heard an incredible range of complaints over the years," says Kristan L. Peters, a managing partner of the Manhattan-based law firm Peters Hamlin, which has a specialty in employment law. "Sometimes I have had people come in with more minor cases [than Tara's]. One man wanted to file a sex harassment suit against a female employee who patted his shirt pocket to say 'good work.' I've spent most of my time defending companies against sex harassment."

In other words, by halting Pete's conduct, Tara may very well have saved her employer legal feels and other hassles. Still, was the way she went about it—talking to Pete directly instead of complaining to human resources—proper?

"Only by making a formal complaint [to HR] do you trigger protection from retaliation," Marshall says.

According to Parkinson, the choice is something of a draw. "In general, I would say that if it's a business with an HR department, that would be the first place to go with a complaint," she says. "But since Tara had a good relationship with Pete, it was good that she talked to him first. If she went to HR first, it definitely could have had bad consequences for Pete."

Parkinson suggests any type of frank one-on-one talk with your boss about misbehavior should start out positive: "You should definitely begin by saying how much you enjoy working with him." Then you can discuss your grievance and hope that your boss responds in a mature and professional manner—as did Pete, even though he probably didn't feel particularly lovely afterward.

*This case study scenario is true. Names and identifying details have been changed.

Rebecca Reisner is an editor at BusinessWeek.com .

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