I went a touch too far, and now my boss won’t stop flirting. What to do?

Posted May 26, 2012, at 5:16 p.m.
Last modified May 27, 2012, at 7:18 a.m.
Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe

Dear Prudence,

I’ve worked for the past five years as a night security guard at a large indoor facility. Typically there are three of us on the overnight shift: the supervisor, “Charles,” with whom I’ve always had a cordial relationship, another guard, and myself. (I am the only female.) One night I went to a bathroom I don’t usually use and was overcome with a very strong sexual urge (as often happens with me).

The toilet seat was uncomfortable, so I decided to sit on the tank. It turns out the lock on the door was broken, and before I was through, Charles walked in on me. I shouted at him to get out but it was several painful seconds before he did. I expected to be fired and was prepared to beg him not to let me go, but instead I had to endure a lecture about the merits of controlling oneself and finding the proper time and place to handle “such things.” He then offered the use of a special room in the building where I could “take care of business” if ever I felt “the urge” again. I declined.

Since this incident the other guards I work with in rotation have all been giving me knowing smiles and making thinly veiled comments letting me know they know. Charles has become very flirtatious and thinks he now has license to speak to me in an inappropriate manner. I understand that I brought this upon myself, but I have children to support. I can’t afford to lose this job.

How can I remain employed and re-establish the professional relationship I once had with Charles and my fellow guards?

— Not Taking Care of Business

Dear Not,

The best thing for a supervisor to do if he accidentally walks into a bathroom and discovers a subordinate ecstatically riding the toilet tank is to turn, mumble, “Excuse me,” and flee. There you were, caught pink-handed, and now Charles thinks that has given him carte blanche to act out a blue-collar version of Fifty Shades of Grey.

You now know that no matter how horny you are, you should wait to relieve such urges in the comfort of your own home (although a similar situation made for a much-discussed scene on a recent episode of Girls). What you did demonstrates poor judgment and was a mistake. What your boss is now doing demonstrates sexual harassment and is illegal. I spoke with Philip J. Gordon, a Massachusetts employment attorney, and he said that employees using the bathroom at work have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Your supervisor’s violation of that was accidental, but as a result, he is deliberately turning you into sexual prey, just because you may have listened to Britney Spears’ “ Touch of My Hand” too many times.

Charles should not have offered you a masturbation lair (complete with security camera, we can assume). His next mistake was telling all the boys and allowing them to participate in a snicker fest. Now he appears to be making an implicit bargain: Put up with his smarmy innuendo and you get to keep your job. This is against the law, Gordon says.

You may feel you brought this upon yourself, but you didn’t. If a woman dresses in what could be described as a sexually alluring way, it does not give her male colleagues license to create a hostile work environment. Your boss seeing you touch your private parts in a private setting did not turn the facility you guard into the Playboy Mansion. So now you need to address this. Sit down with Charles and calmly tell him that the atmosphere at work has taken a very unpleasant turn and it’s time for it to stop. Say what’s happening is no longer a joke, it’s sexual harassment (emphasize that phrase), and he needs to make sure everyone goes back to treating you as a fellow professional. That might take care of it.

If it doesn’t, after a few weeks, reiterate the conversation in an email to Charles. Then, if after a little more time the lewd comments don’t end, forward the email to Human Resources and ask for an appointment. You can simply tell them that Charles walked in on you in the bathroom, and since then you have been the object of endless crude remarks. If Charles wants to explain that his behavior comes from seeing you masturbate, he will find out how that works as a line of defense.

Dear Prudence,

My parents showed extreme favoritism toward me when my sister and I were growing up. If both of us did something wrong, our parents would severely rebuke my sister without saying a harsh word to me. They’d even go as far as to tell her off even more for “not looking after your little sister properly.” I didn’t know how dysfunctional this kind of parenting was — mainly because my parents treated me perfectly nicely and showered me with affection — until I grew up and saw how other families interacted.

After my sister went to college (which she had to pay for herself by working multiple part-time jobs because my parents said they were paying for only my tuition), she decided to have as little to do with our family as possible. After several years of having barely any contact, I wanted to establish a relationship with my sister and wrote her a letter. After four months she sent a scathing reply where she condemned me equally as our parents. I feel hurt because this is so unfair. Is there a chance of my sister forgiving me for something I never did?

— Favorite Sister

Dear Favorite,

I hope that in addition to the letter to your sister, you have had some very blunt conversations with your parents about how their favoritism destroyed their relationship with their eldest daughter and destroyed your relationship with you sister. What happened is not your fault, but surely long before you became an adult you were aware of the disparity in your treatment. From your sister’s perspective, all she ever saw was how you benefited from the favoritism and never spoke up in her defense to your parents, or told her how horrible you felt about the disparities. Good for her for breaking away from your family — it sounds like the healthy thing for her to do.

It would have been nice for you if she had responded differently to your letter, but what you got is not unexpected. So stop nursing your wounds over her “unfairness.” She has to recover from a lifetime of abuse, and that’s no easy task. You may never have a relationship with her, but if you want to keep trying, respond to her letter. Tell her you understand her anger and looking back on what your childhoods were like grieves you. Say you hope you two can find a way to reconnect, but if that would be too painful for her, you understand. And tell her that you yourself have confronted your mother and father about their grotesque failures as parents.

Dear Prudie,

My husband and I are blessed with a wonderful 3-month-old baby boy. I recently went back to work and am required to be there a minimum of 14 hours on scheduled days. The other night, I didn’t get home until 9:30 p.m. The front door to the house was wide open. I went inside, and no one was home. Scratch that — my 3-month-old baby was sleeping in his room while my husband was partying at the neighbor’s house next door. He thought it was OK because he had a monitor and came home to check on him every once in a while. I say, no way, no matter what, under any circumstances, should a baby be left alone like that. Who’s right?

— Working Mom

Dear Working,

I’m sure your husband’s childcare methods are illegal in your jurisdiction. It’s chilling to think what could happen with an open door, an unattended baby, and a father partying next door. Find some parenting classes, ideally that you two can attend together, so your husband can get his head into what being responsible for a new life means.

Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.)

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