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Maybe It's Not Just Dinner

Vivia Chen

February 28, 2012

Joan_rogerIt always boils down to sex.

Recently, I wrote about how men in power are reluctant to sponsor young women because of the sexual innuendos that might arise. In particular, I wrote about their squeamishness about having a business meal with a female subordinate outside of the office. I was incredulous that men could be so uptight.

Well, readers, I got a slew of mail taking me to task. One in-house counsel writes:

The reason we (older male management lawyers) don’t want to have lunch or dinner with younger, lower-ranked females is because we been lectured to, sometimes yearly, about the evils of sexual harassment. And it has been made VERY clear to us that all it takes is an allegation to really start trouble. One little misunderstanding, and the career is in ruins. . . .  And once an allegation of sexual harassment is made, it is in your file forever. 

Worse, it isn't just perception. There's the very real possibility that all that togetherness will lead to temptation. "You spend time with a young woman who looks up to you, and you feel flattered, and before you know it, one thing leads to another," says a partner at a New York firm. "Things happen."

Indeed, illicit relationships happen all the time. "In our survey, 34 percent of executive women say they know people who have had affairs with their bosses," says economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. "We're talking about illicit romance."

Moreover, Hewlett's study, which is summarized in Harvard Business Review, finds that 15 percent of women in senior corporate positions had affairs themselves. "They also perceive that these liaisons sometimes yield a payoff: of those who know of an illicit affair, 37 percent claim that the woman involved received a career boost as a consequence."

Yikes. This is not much better than the shenanigans in Mad Men. No wonder everyone is uptight.

Is there any way to make it "safe" for a sponsor and his female protégé to get together? For starters, Hewlett says it's key that employers make clear that sexual relationships between boss and subordinates will not be tolerated. Hewlett also advocates institutionalizing sponsorship; she cites American Express as an example of a organization that's created a "culture of  sponsorship." To make it work, she advocates transparency—literally. Pick restaurants that are "surrounded by glass. So you can have an evening meeting without gossip."

Legal consultant Karen Kaplowitz thinks one way for women to nip gossip in the bud is to adopt a "personal policy of not dating people with whom you work, and let people know about it." And for male sponsors, she suggests that they send out a clear signal that they are "off-limits for personal relationships by treating women lawyers very professionally." Kaplowitz also advises that men avoid commenting on women's attire or appearance. (She also tells women not to dress provocatively.)

None of this sounds terribly jolly. And it doesn't seem women will ever enjoy the kind of  fun "buddy" relationship that exists between senior men and male associates.

It's a pity that there aren't enough gay male partners to go around.

Prior post: It's Just Dinner. Really.

Photo: AMC's Mad Men

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Are we not adults who can monitor ourselves? It is sad that anyone has to be so very worried about sexual harrassment for a simple outing to a restaurant day or night.

WIth the exception of a working dinner, such as preparing for trial or group dinner with others in the office or a client, there is no professional reason for having dinner with one's superior. One would be putting themselves in an uncomfortable position One can be mentored during office hours or perhaps during lunch. If a superior or co-worker asks for a one-on-one "business dinner" chances are the intention is not "business." As far as dating in the work place, it is always best not to. In some workplaces it is against company policy and one can be terminated. Bottom line, if you like your job, don't date in the work place and don't go out with superiors, unless it is in the case of the examples I mentioned above. As far as sexual harassment If office policy permits, I don't believe it is harassment if a co-worker asks another to go to dinner, however, if once the answer no is given and a co-worker persists and creates an uncomfortable atmophere, that is harassment.

Wouldn't a better way to deal with all this be a form of "group" mentoring? In Boy Scouting, the rule is that a boy can never be left alone with an individual adult. Another adult or several other boys must always be present.

What if mentoring was a group project where two or three people at the top picked five or six people at the bottom and helped them as a group? Then gender wouldn't matter at all.

Yes, at some point there would have to be one on one relationships, but once group dynamics and ground rules were set, wouldn't people have a much better expectations and understandings of the mentor-mentee relationship?

And wouldn't it improve networking opportunities for younger employees: they would get to network laterally with their group, up just a little with their mentors previous mentee groups, and up with several mentors and their contacts.

Wins all around!

Mses. Hewlett and Kaplowitz both offer good suggestions. Let me add another: avoid alcohol, a recognized factor in sexual harassment cases.

I'm glad to learn that men are concerned about sexual harassment claims, but only actions that are either severe or pervasive are actionable. For more information about identifying sexual harassment go to http://on.fb.me/wxj9vL

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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