I‘m a recently hired college grad, and I was asked back three times during the interviewing process. On the third time I hadn’t prepared the night before, and I was on the train three stops away trying to conjure up good questions. I recalled one really good one my sister suggested. I was supposed to research it on the web, but I decided to just ask the question. So I asked “Have there been any incidences of sexual harassment?” hoping to get insight on how they would handle a situation. It was a last minute question that turned into a bad idea. I’ve been in sexually charged workplaces before. I’ve been blatantly ogled, and been told sexually suggestive things. I never reported anything. I deal with those things daily; it bothers me, but I can’t change people.
The CFO commended my bold comment that he says women don’t ask enough, and then on how well prepared I’d been. The HR manager turned pink, and then went on about how she understands. I accepted an offer, and on my first day she went on about how she was fondled in the workplace eons ago. She appeared unsettled, but understanding. Apparently, she went and told some co-workers on my floor before I started that I asked about sexual harassment, and that I was a risky hire. She said “She thinks she’s hot, and she thinks someone’s going to do something to her.” I always maintain a modest appearance and demeanor. That was character assassination.
Every office has a gossiper; ours should be a crier. Now, everyone likely thinks I’m some kind of black widow who’ll scream rape the minute a man walks past me in a dark corridor. Today, I was having a work-related conversation with a male co-worker. When we began talking about my home city he recently took a business trip to, he casually asked me about my high school. That’s when the office gossiper yells; “Watch it K***!” She had this look of worry on her face, and he looked up at her as if he understood. I’m humiliated. I was advised not to confront the gossiping HR Manager, or consult with the CFO; because she’ll get defensive and make my job hard, and CFO’s just don’t have time for interpersonal crap. I was told that those interviews were confidential. What should I do?
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY JENNIFER GLUECK BEZOZA
Dear College Grad,
I agree with your assessment that the HR manager committed “character assassination” towards you. When she relayed to several soon-to-be colleagues that you inquired about incidents of sexual harassment in the interview, and asserted that you have a high opinion of your appearance and think someone is going to make a move on you (with absolutely no basis of proof), she acted unprofessionally and exemplified the antithesis of “model-HR” behavior.
Since we cannot take a “do over” on your final interview, nor take back the HR manager’s slanderous words, it seems unproductive to belabor the incidents further. Instead, I will focus on how you can move forward from here.
First, let’s focus on the good news. The fact that you even know what the HR manager said behind your back demonstrates you have formed at least one ally who is willing to tell you the truth. While it’s not something you probably have thought about celebrating, having just one friend at work can make a significant difference in your job satisfaction and commitment at work (as Gallup Research shows).
I would tend to agree with the advice you have received on whether to confront the CEO and/or HR manager. I think approaching one or both at this point would only continue to highlight the unfortunate interview conversation, and the perception that you are a “risky hire.” In addition, I suspect confronting the HR manager about a lack of confidentiality would only create defensiveness and potentially lead to more slandering of your character.
I think humor might be the right antidote for convincing your colleagues that you are a trustworthy and reasonable woman, and not the “black widow (as you say), who will scream rape when a man walks past you in the corridor.” For example, you referenced an incident, whereby a colleague asked you an innocuous personal question (e.g., where you went to high school), and then he got openly chided by another colleague for potentially “taking things too far” with you.
Should this type of incident occur again, I think you could light heartedly confront the elephant in the room, and respond by saying there seems to be some false rumors circulating, and you are actually perfectly comfortable talking about your high school and even willing to go to lunch (!) with a male colleague. Obviously the humor has to feel authentic and comfortable for you. Using humor is a smart way to diffuse the tension and show your colleagues that you are not easily offended and that you are also able to respond to a situation in a positive and reasonable manner. You want to show that you put little weight on these comments and others should too.
In addition, you want to put your focus on doing good work and adding value for the organization. Over time, your colleagues will come to see that you are a very likable professional, and not the “risky hire” that was purported. That is the sweetest revenge.
I hope these thoughts are helpful. Thanks for writing Office Politics!
Jennifer Glueck Bezoza, MA
Jennifer Glueck Bezoza specializes in leadership development and career coaching. Through her work in Organizational Development at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, Jennifer designs leadership development programs, and coaches teams and individuals. Previously, Jennifer led GE Commercial Finance’s employee engagement initiative and also served as an HR Generalist at GE. In addition, she worked as a consultant at Towers Perrin.
Jennifer holds an MA in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a BA in Psychology from Stanford University. Jennifer is continuing her education through an executive coaching program at New York University.