A reader writes:
I have a question regarding a coworker of mine. I realize it is technically none of my business, I am in a different department and it doesn’t affect me directly, but it really bothers me and wanted to get your opinion of how slimy this is. My coworker is fairly young, 23, very pretty, and has an outgoing personality. She is in the sales/member services department of our company and has only been here about 3 months. It is part of her job to attend conferences with the manager of that department (she is older) and they are supposed to talk to other companies about joining our company. At the last conference, several men had hit on her, and I guess her manager was annoyed by it and felt this was distracting from her “doing her job.”
This manager “requested” (more like insisted) she buy a fake wedding ring and wear it during this conference, and future conferences. She basically told her, “Either wear that or I am going to have to reconsider bringing you to these conferences.” I am not going to ask the “is that even legal” question — but on a scale of 1-10, how inappropriate is this? I would imagine if it was my coworker’s idea, I might feel differently about it, but she didn’t feel she was doing anything wrong at the conference. And as far as I am concerned, it is not likely that a wedding ring (fake OR real) is going to ward off men who are attracted to her and hitting on her in the first place.
I feel for her because of the fact that she is so young, and new, and feels she can’t say no, but is uncomfortable with the situation. I just feel it is wrong and violates her to some degree. This young coworker does have a boyfriend, and says she talks to everyone at the conferences (not just the men) and has no interest in seeing them, dating them, etc…she is just doing her job by talking to them and explaining our company to these people. She asked me for advice, and I am not sure what to tell her. I don’t want her to go against what her boss is telling her, but still don’t think it is right.
What the ….?!
This is totally inappropriate and not okay. If the manager has a problem with how your coworker is conducting herself, she should address that — but it sounds like that’s not the issue at all; she just doesn’t like the fact that men flirt with her.
It would be one thing to give her advice about how to quickly shut that down — and even to tell her that she needs to do so, although it’s pretty hard to insist on that when it’s in the context of talking to someone about your company’s products. Hell, it wouldn’t even be all that egregious for her to say, “You know, if you want to ward some of this off, one way is to wear a ring.” (I happen to think that’s a ridiculous solution, and I agree with you that it won’t stop the flirting, but simply mentioning it isn’t egregious.)
But telling her that she’ll reconsider taking her to conferences if she doesn’t do it is so far, far over the line of what’s okay that I cannot imagine how her manager thinks this is acceptable to do.
Moreover, there probably are legal issues in play here. The manager is telling your coworker that she will change her assignments at work (the conferences) and stop giving her this particular professional opportunity if your coworker doesn’t take steps to make herself less appealing to men, which gets into some pretty sticky discrimination issues. I’m not saying it’s a slam-dunk case, because it’s not, but it’s certainly something no responsible company would want to spend the legal fees to find out for sure.
In any case … ideally, your coworker would say to her manager, “I am not comfortable wearing a wedding ring when I’m not married. I am conducting myself professionally and not doing anything to invite inappropriate behavior. If there’s something specific you’d like me to do differently in the way I handle myself at these conferences, I’m very open to the feedback, but I’m not comfortable wearing a fake ring, and I certainly hope that won’t impact the opportunities you give me here.”
If you have an HR department, she should also get them in the loop on this, because they will probably shut her boss down pretty quickly — and she can also ask them to ensure there’s no retaliation against her for this.
However, there’s open retaliation and there’s more subtle retaliation, and the latter is a lot harder to police. The fact is, your coworker is working for a manager who has issues with the way men respond to her, so she’s going to need to be prepared to assert herself against future weirdness as well.