Dear Office Confidential:
I work for an experiential marketing company and my boss takes the staff out for drinks every Friday after work. The office is mostly men, and when we go out, my co-workers often make inappropriate comments about the servers and bartenders. My boss doesn’t actually join in, but he often chuckles and says nothing to deter the comments because they’re only made among the guys. The conversation makes me uncomfortable but I don’t feel I can say anything — it feels like the price of admission for working in a male-dominated office. Plus, it’s happening outside the workplace. Is there anything I can do in this situation?
Dear Price of Admission:
Ah, after-work drinks. Your colleagues may be thinking that what happens at Milestones stays at Milestones. Or they may not be thinking that their behaviour is inappropriate at all: people often make comments like these out of earshot of the person they’re talking about, thinking that what the waitress doesn’t hear won’t hurt her. But they don’t reflect on how those comments may affect others within their social group. You can— and should—consider talking to your boss about this. Unwanted or inappropriate comments that make you feel uncomfortable don’t support a healthy, happy workplace, regardless of whether they take place in the office, on company time or after hours at a social gathering.
So how do you raise this matter without being considered a prude or the office wet blanket?
You mentioned that your boss never seems to join in these conversations but that he often chuckles or says nothing to deter them. He may be just as embarrassed and uncomfortable as you are. Regardless of whether that’s the case, he has a responsibility to hear your concerns. So make a point of raising this the next business day, when your concerns are still fresh in your mind, and make sure you’re prepared for the conversation.
Start by setting up an appointment with him so he understands this will be a serious conversation. Then make sure that you raise the matter in a helpful and non-accusatory way. To begin the meeting you can say, “There is a matter that is troubling me and I wanted to get your advice on how best to handle it.” This places the boss in a position where he is not automatically defensive but is listening and perhaps a bit flattered that you are asking his advice. You can then say that you felt a little uncomfortable about the situation in the bar and that you are concerned that your co-workers might treat you the same way (or at least see you in the same way). You may then ask if he has any ideas about what might be done to help everyone in the workplace feel welcome and valued. Consider adding that you very much value your work and your relationships with him and your co-workers and that you want to work together to create a positive work environment for everyone.
For thorough advice on this, you may want to read an excellent book called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. It will help you understand what happens when you try to have a conversation you feel uncomfortable about and guide you through a process to raise issues constructively.
Your boss may opt to raise these issues in a staff meeting or speak with the parties individually. He may also want to consider using workplace tools to help deliver his message—many organizations have developed hands-on, interactive training for employers and employees to help educate them about their rights and responsibilities. You or your boss can find them with a Google search or by hiring an external service provider to facilitate an education program about appropriate behavior in the workplace and at workplace-related social functions.
In the end, every employee is entitled to a workplace that is free of unwelcome comments. Whether you like it or not, your “price of admission” may be that you’re the first to raise this issue —and you could have an impact on how positively it’s dealt with. We’ll drink to that.
Office Confidential questions are answered by Workplace Fairness Institute staff Blaine Donais, Rosalie Bellefontaine and Andrew Cook. This new column is part of #project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #project97.
If you have a question about how to create a workplace that’s safe and fair for everyone, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org