I work in a company with few women in leadership roles.  One of my colleagues, who is female, joined the firm about a year ago.  She is intelligent and driven and has a desire to advance.  When she first joined, she sought out a meeting with the Vice President in an attempt to gain visibility and better align herself with the company priorities.  As a result, the VP assigned her a few additional projects and recommended her for a training program that could lead to a promotion.

However, the VP has also started texting and calling my colleague, sometimes at night or on weekends. He even suggested that they run a race together in another city.  My co-worker is not married, but her superior is.  She finds the contact to be inappropriate but fears that saying anything, even to him, will limit her opportunities at the company.  She is also concerned that, by initiating a meeting with the VP, she bears some responsibility.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

2 responses »

  1. John Hooker says:

    There are actually two issues here: favoritism and sexual harassment. Let’s suppose the boss is Tom and the subordinate is Mary. One might say that Tom is showing favoritism toward Mary by giving her what appear to be special opportunities, perhaps because she is female. We feel that favoritism is wrong because it is “unfair.” Unfortunately, people have very different ideas about what is “fair,” so this is a poor criterion for making ethical choices.

    There is an implied promise that the company will promote employees based on performance, without playing favorites. However, for all we know, Tom will promote Mary based on performance. He is just giving her special opportunities to improve her performance.

    One might argue that there is an implied promise to give all employees equal opportunity to improve performance. However, I don’t know how to defend this claim. Tom is giving Mary special opportunities because she showed initiative. I don’t see why this is a breach of promise to employees, express or implied. So I don’t see an ethical problem with giving Mary special attention.

    However, Tom is doing more than giving Mary special attention (in the sense of special opportunities to advance her career). He is trying to build a personal relationship he doesn’t have with most employees. Is there anything wrong with this?

    There could be a utilitarian problem, because Tom is human, and a relationship will cause him to be biased in spite of himself. Tom doesn’t have to know that he will be biased, but only consider the probabilities. The total expected utility is arguably less (due to company disadvantage) if Tom is involved in a relationship. So it is probably a bad idea.

    The same point applies to either sex. It is problematic for Tom to be a close golf buddy with a new (straight) male employee, for the same reason. Close friendships with coworkers are fine, provided neither makes promotion decisions regarding the other.

    So where does sexual harassment come into the picture? One possibility is that Tom is pressuring Mary to form a personal relationship, using his position in the company as leverage, and this is wrong. But exactly why is it wrong?

    Suppose Tom applies pressure by suggesting that Mary should contribute to a political campaign through the company. Tom never says that this will affect her career, but she fears (with some justification) that it will. This is inappropriate for a reason stated earlier: it violates an implied promise. Employees expect the company to promote on the basis of performance, not political contributions.

    Now suppose Tom applies pressure by suggesting that Mary should transfer to an office in another city. He doesn’t actually say her career success depends on it, but she fears (with some justification) that it does. This is not inappropriate, because employees expect that a company may ask employees to transfer for business reasons.

    A personal relationship is like the political contribution. Employees expect their career to depend on business performance, not personal relationships. On this view, the problem is not with the sexual element, but with the breach of an implied promise.

    Applying pressure can also reach the level of coercion, which is a violation of autonomy. Tom violates Mary’s autonomy when he prevents her from carrying out her (ethical) action choices. Applying pressure to transfer is not really coercion in this sense, because Mary has already “signed on” to this possibility; she has given implied consent. Her decision to work for the company implies a decision to accept the consequences of failing to meet business-related company standards. So if Mary is forced to transfer or quit the job, this is consistent with her action choice.

    On the other hand, applying pressure to form a relationship is coercion and a violation of autonomy. Mary didn’t “sign on” to the possibility of making a choice between an unwanted relationship and quitting the job. Mary’s initial meeting with Tom didn’t signal implied consent to a personal relationship; it only signaled ambition. Again, the ethical problem is not the sexual element. The problem is violation of autonomy.

    So what is Mary to do? We must recognize that ethics doesn’t tell us how to solve our problems. It only tells us what is ethical. In Tom’s case, it tells us that his special attention to Mary is ethical, but his personal advances are not. In Mary’s case, it tells her that (a) she has no obligation to yield to Tom’s advances, because this is not part of her implied employment contract, and (b) it is probably wrong to form a personal relationship with Tom, for utilitarian reasons. Ethics doesn’t tell her how she can assure her advancement in the company without humoring Tom.

  2. Not Now says:

    Solving a problem with a win win (or at least not win/lose) solution can be ethical unless there is some reason to make a ethical stand. Diffusing a persons personal shortcomings (the boss) is probably a good solution unless there is reason to believe such shortcomings need to be confronted to avoid future incidents.
    The employee might consider telling the boss she is concerned about what the bosses wife might be feeling about the exceptional degree of contact, so she (the employee) thinks it a good idea to keep their interactions without even the “appearance of impropriety’. This may cool the bosses heels- he may have been thinking that a relationship beyond professional might have had some attraction to the employee. If it doesn’t cool the boss then there may be harassment which the employee has to consider whether it is worth enduring over the alternative of making an issue of it- if it is not clear and demonstrable she might have a hard time- though if she requested he not phone at certain times and he does she should compile a little evidence if possible. And she has the prerogative of enduring the harassment if she feels it helps her career- but that is probably at the expense of others advancement and that may indeed be an ethical dilemma.

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