This is a true story about an event that occurred in July, 2005 in a major city in the northeastern United States. The names have been changed for privacy purposes. Was this a wise managerial call - or an indication of the challenges that continue to confront professional women?
Last week, a former colleague, Janet, sent me an email flagged 'high priority' with a subject line that read "Any Ideas On This One, Oh Wise One?" In it, she described a disturbing workplace dilemma.
For the past six years, Janet has been a member of a management team of a successful, progressive equipment finance unit of a large U.S. bank.
As a result of a recent merger and office closings, Janet shifted into a relationship manager role with the parent company, a bank. In this role, she calls on executives of mid-sized and large companies to help them with their financing needs.
It is a role that leverages her 19 years of financial services experience, as salesperson, sales manager, business developer - and all-around, seasoned business professional.
Intermittently throughout the summer, the bank sponsors guest nights, inviting clients and their spouses to performances at a local playhouse. The bank's relationship managers are expected to attend to re-enforce their business relationships on a more informal, casual level.
A week prior to the event, Janet's boss, Steven, took her aside and asked about her plans for attending the event. She responded eagerly "Of course, I'll attend – I'm looking forward to it".
Steven paused, and then asked: "Are you going alone?" Janet, 43 and a single mom, replied "Yes, that's what I'd planned".
Clearly uncomfortable, Steven suggested she contact one of her male banking colleagues and ask him to escort her. "It would look much better and our clients wouldn't be uncomfortable", he added.
Caught off guard, Janet agreed. And shot off her email to me.
I responded bluntly, describing Steven's behavior as "outrageous", "archaic" and "boorish". At the same time, wanting to avoid a corporate can of worms, I advised Janet to discreetly get advice from an HR colleague who had recently retired from the bank about the propriety of Steven's request.
I wondered…would he have asked a male relationship officer to request a female escort? What if a client comes to the event solo? And, who was really uncomfortable here?
I also encouraged Janet push the envelope in a professional way. Once the event is over, have a respectful yet direct conversation with Steven to address her future desire to attend these events on her terms: as a single, professional woman dedicated to doing a good job for her company and her clients.
Are there risks to this approach? You bet, especially given Janet's newcomer status and the political nature of the banking environment. On the other hand, it's an opportunity to stand up early-- and clearly - to behavior that is unacceptable in 2005.