I have never been sexually harassed by a co-worker or employer, but I have assuredly been harassed nearly weekly over the past 22 years of my career. When I look back on my professional working career, I can think of so many times I was harassed by clients. Sure, there were the people who wouldn’t sign a contract with me because I was pretty, would likely get married, have kids, and never be seen again. There was the time I was cornered in a poorly lit building by a man who didn’t like a price increase my company instituted and that I was enforcing his contract. But the sexual harassment that I have faced has made up 20% of my working experience.
My first job was as a receptionist for a brokerage firm. This was in Muskegon, which is as small as it sounds, so most of our clients were nice and always pleasant to work with. One client though was quite different. Each time he called for his broker; he would try to linger on the phone with me by asking me how my day was going. He showed up to every happy hour, client event, and at the office whenever he could swing by. At first it was just subtle compliments, that turned into heavy flirting, that turned into requests for my home phone number, that finally turned into him asking me to get in his family SUV one night. Fortunately, one of the brokers was with me, insisted on walking me to my car, and demanded the client be fired the next day.
That was the moment I learned to trust my bosses and co-workers. I was one of them and they had my back, they were not going to risk the reputation of the firm, and more importantly my safety by allowing a client to harass me.
When I left college, I entered the world of sales and spent 20 wonderful years working with some of the best people you could meet. The majority of my clients have been men, and 80% of them are indeed respectful, harassment would never cross their mind.
Harassment can take on many forms, not all is overtly sexual. The most common is the “compliments” that many people give. Several years back I scheduled a breakfast meeting with a man to discuss business. When I arrived, he commented on my looks and suggested that if he knew how attractive I was he would have insisted on meeting me for drinks instead of breakfast. These compliments may appear harmless, but it shows salespeople they are not considered peers and therefore, never acceptable.
The second most common is the business “date.” This is an after 4:00 meeting request, and this is never about business. Instead it is about the business of trying to get someone to go on a date with you when they think they are discussing a potential business deal. Now, I have had clients who, over time, trust was built where we could discuss a business deal over drinks or dinner, but this is after many years of a respectful business relationship. All too often, people pushing for the after 4:00 time slot are focused on whether you are dating anyone, and not on business at all.
The absolute worst is the pressure harassment. This can come in an email, at a networking event, in a business meeting, or anywhere and time that seems appropriate for the harasser. I have way too many of these to count. Some highlights were a graphic picture being sent to me after I let a client know that I was looking forward to meeting him. There was the time that I offered to be of assistance at any time and was sent a detailed email describing what kind of assistance was required. In one instance, I was handing out name tags at a work event and not only did a man ask me to put his name tag on him but brought along his co-worker to ask the same. And the absolute worst was the day a long-time client decided to pursue a personal relationship and when that was denied wrote me an email the following day letting me know that while I did great work for his company, I was no longer in consideration for future contracts.
I get asked all the time by people I discuss this issue with if I ever find the men I meet with attractive. And the answer is yes. But here is what I don’t do:
- Go out of my way to make them feel uncomfortable
- Ask them if they are dating anyone
- Pressure them into a meeting time and location where I have the advantage
- Refuse to discuss the business opportunity they are trying to earn so they can support themselves
- I absolutely do not touch them or make illicit remarks to them about their looks or bodies
Every single time I faced overt harassment through these pressure situations, I did inform my direct supervisors. And every single time they had my back. I have worked for many companies who are willing to walk away from business, inform a client of their employee’s harassment, or simply go with me on every single meeting and ask to be included on all email correspondence. Either way, I knew that I was valued by my employers and that I didn’t need to be afraid of retaliation.
This is still difficult though, because in reporting I was putting my career growth, my sales goal, and my earning potential at risk. I had to trust that I worked for people who wouldn’t deny me my ability to be treated as an equal because I was singled out by one individual. My instance in not facing any negative consequences for reporting is not always the case though. I believe in large part this is due to companies not fully understanding how to deal with these issues, not to mention that most salespeople would never take the risk of reporting client harassment.
Now that I have my own team, I am even more vigilant in my awareness. I listen in on the conversations they have, not the word for word, but the tone. If I hear one of them becoming cautious over the phone or standing back from someone in a room, I find a time to address whether they feel uncomfortable. I also identify the right person within the client company who I should discuss inappropriate behavior conducted by their employees, and work with them to come to an appropriate solution. After all, that isn’t the first time the client’s employee has made someone feel uncomfortable and it won’t be the last.
While there are definite laws in place to guard employees and companies in these instances, it takes trust and understanding to get employees to come forward. A great first step in getting your salespeople to open up is just asking if there is a client they could use some help with and letting employees know that if a meeting needs to happen after 4:00, that you would like to be included. This is a big issue in every company, and it needs to be talked about. In addressing this issue, your team and your company will only find greater success because of the trust that you have earned.
Sign up for the October 15, 2019 ATC Roundtable: Sales Leadership to equip yourself the with knowledge to protect your team from harassment and implement lawful policies that will build trust within your company.