The 22-year-old assistant felt flattered when her 30-year-old boss asked her to lunch. But when it came time to go to the restaurant, she was startled to learn that they'd be getting there by motorcycle, with her arms wrapped around his waist. Soon after they were seated, instead of discussing their next project, the boss told her how attractive she was and asked her out to dinner.
New to the job, the assistant found herself in a tough position. In such a situation, says Vicki Lynn, vice president of research and consulting at the career website Vault.com, "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't." If the assistant turned down her boss's advance, she risked hurting his feelings and souring their professional relationship. But she had no interest in saying yes.
"Men who do this have such a blind spot that saying something often doesn't work," says Anne Golden, a partner at the plaintiff-side employment law firm Outten & Golden in New York City. It can be tough for a young person to summon the confidence and maturity to tell a boss to lay off, Golden notes. "The boss often says, 'You're taking it wrong. I was just being friendly,'" she adds.
Or the aggressor might interpret a woman's refusal as a form of playing hard to get: "Often the only thing that stops the advances is a trip to human resources," Golden says. "But then you're lucky if two careers don't get destroyed." She notes that unwanted passes don't always come from men to women. In 25 years as an employment lawyer, she has also seen women hitting on men, men hitting on men and women hitting on women. Still, the most common cases involve men coming onto women.
Daniel O'Meara, a management-side labor and employment lawyer at the Philadelphia law firm Montgomery McCracken, says employees should tell bosses their advances are unwelcome. He suggests using humor. "You can shut the behavior down by mildly joking," he says. Lines O'Meara likes: "Hey, does anyone have the speed dial number for human resources?" Or, "Can I borrow your cellphone to tell your wife what you just said?" But you'll want to be sure to strike the right joshing tone if you say such a thing. Lynn, Hernstadt and Golden all agree that especially when an employee is young and new at the job, it can be very tough to find the personal strength to stand up to an older male boss.
Both Hernstadt and Golden encourage targets of unwanted advances to consult a lawyer early in the process. That doesn't necessarily mean taking legal action, but it's useful to know your rights. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment and protects employees who are retaliated against because they complain of being harassed. A lawyer can tell you about your rights under federal law and also the protections you have available in state and local law.
Though many employees think they will be protected by their companies' human resources department, it's important to remember that HR's main responsibility is to the employer, Hernstadt cautions: "Their primary concern is going to be the continued peaceful and profitable functioning of the workplace." he observes. Meara points out another problem with going to HR: Word can get out that you filed a complaint, and if you're perceived as a troublemaker, it could jeopardize your chances of landing a job elsewhere.
Part of the problem is that plaintiffs lose the majority of sexual harassment cases that go to trial. That's because 90 percent to 95 percent of the cases with real merits are settled, Hernstadt explains. O'Meara points out that plaintiffs rarely get big payouts, though there are notable exceptions, like the $11.6 million jury verdict in 2007 against Madison Square Garden, Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and MSG executive James Dolan in a sex harassment claim brought by Knicks marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders (the case was later settled for an undisclosed amount.)
Marcie Schorr Hirsch, a career coach and consultant with Hirsch/Hills Consulting, in Newton Centre, Mass., agrees that it's best to avoid legal action if possible. "Harassment is as much about power as it is about anything else," she notes. Hirsch suggests young employees take steps before any unwanted advances even occur, to send the message that they're serious about work and uninterested in romantic entanglements. "It's like the advice you give people who walk outside alone at night," she says. "Try to convey that you know where you're going, that you're confident." That includes sending a message through the way you dress, the language you use and even your posture.
If your boss hits on you, tell him you aren't interested, Hirsch advises. It's possible to be respectful while making your position clear. Appropriate responses include, "I'm sorry if you got the wrong impression, but I want to keep our relationship professional," or, "I'm just starting this job. I would like to have a great work relationship with you. However, one of the rules I've set for myself is that I don't get personally involved with people at work. That's not about you, it's just my rule."
© 2012 Forbes.com