Ask a Boss: Should I Give Up an Impressive Business Contact Who Keeps Hitting on Me?

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Dear Boss,

I need advice on whether I should give up on a customer senior executive as a professional resource, or how to preserve the working relationship with him if his intentions are not completely professional.

I’m on the negotiating team for a negotiation expected to last several months, and the customer’s senior executive whom I need advice on is their lead negotiator. I am one of the most junior (still middle management, though) and certainly the youngest on the team.

Unexpectedly, this exec called me to ask whether I’d be interested in working with him on a very high-profile project, which would have been great for my résumé, and a reference from him would be impressive. If I’m 100 percent honest, I knew part of why he asked is because he finds me attractive, but I also do good work and really wanted to be on the project.

We had a few outside chats, focusing on the project, and also intimating that he might want to poach me longer-term. My management was initially onboard, but changed their minds as they wanted me on something else. After that he invited me to dinner, which I accepted. He’s now calling from his personal cell and wanting to meet up more often than should be expected of a busy exec, if it was only for the purposes of a friendly professional contact. I have dined out with senior, much older men before in a professional context before with no issues, but my gut says this is different. I am now fobbing him off when he asks to meet up.

I’m going for a promotion at the moment, and part of my framing is that I’m fantastic enough that our customer wanted me on big project, so I don’t want to mention any of this at work. If I don’t get the promotion, I’m thinking of leaving, and the exec would have been a great resource, but I think it’s probably safer to not think of him as a network contact any further. I am also still negotiating with him and will be for a while, so don’t want it to be awkward.

I hate that I even have to consider my age and gender in professional interactions and feel I haven’t been smart about this and made a hash out of the whole situation.

Yeah, this sucks.

What this guy is doing to you is super sketchy. Picture him doing the exact same thing to a man instead. It’s pretty unlikely that he’d be repeatedly calling a much younger man from his personal cell and asking to meet up all the time … and if he did, it would almost be easier to recognize it as strange.

But of course, one of the reasons this kind of behavior is so insidious is that women tend to think, “Well, he could just be interested in me professionally, and I don’t want to offend him or seem presumptuous if that’s all it is.” That’s especially true when there’s a power dynamic in play because of the person’s professional position relative to yours. Too often, women’s desire not to offend people or assume too much ends up being a doorway that an awful lot of sleazebags walk right though. (That’s in no way to blame any woman who has that response. We have it so often because this stuff can be incredibly sticky.)

And it’s further complicated by the fact that some men are great mentors to younger women without having any kind of additional agenda. But you know what? Those men are generally pretty thoughtful about navigating things in a way that doesn’t make those younger women have to wonder about their intentions. It’s not actually that hard to mentor someone without making them feel creeped upon.

So, what to do in your situation?

For starters, I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong here or that you’ve made a hash out of it at all. You sound like you’ve responded perfectly appropriately. You took this guy at his word that he was interested in working with you on a project — that’s a normal response to what he was presenting as a professional overture. Okay, your gut told you that part of his motivation was that he found you attractive, but you’re entitled to think that your professional qualifications would be playing at least some role in a request to do work. You also don’t have any obligation to turn down work you’re excited about just because someone on the project might find you attractive.

And you didn’t do anything wrong by accepting his dinner invitation. In hindsight it might be easier to see what his intentions were there, but as you note, business dinners are a normal thing with people you’re working with professionally. You shouldn’t have to second-guess every business overture someone makes to you just because of your respective genitalia. That’s not to say that it isn’t useful to be aware that older men’s interest in younger female colleagues isn’t always strictly professional; of course it’s good to know that. But you shouldn’t have to curtail your own professional opportunities to guard against the mere possibility of it. (Although now that you’ve realized what his intentions are, you’re doing the right thing by avoiding the invites.)

I’d keep on declining his invitations and let him put together your lack of interest for himself. You could address it head-on with an “I’m only interested in a professional relationship with you” talk … but frankly, if you’d rather not shoulder the burden of initiating that awkward conversation, there’s no obligation for you to do it. Maybe he’d be a great guy about it or maybe, like plenty of others before him, he’d be an ass about it in ways that end up affecting you professionally. If you don’t feel like dealing with it, it’s not your responsibility to ensure that he gets a clear response to intentions he hasn’t even been explicit about. (My advice on this would different if he was being more pressure-y or if you were concerned that things would escalate otherwise. But if he’s preserving plausible deniability for himself, there’s no reason that you can’t take advantage of that too.)

Depending on your sense of the dynamics between the two of you when it comes to the actual work you’re doing, you don’t necessarily have to write him off as a networking contact altogether. Maybe you do, but before you conclude that, watch how he conducts himself after you’ve turned down a few more invitations. If he seems to get the message and keeps working with you in an appropriate way, you very well might be able to continue to include him in your network — who knows. But if he keeps it up, or if your gut tells you that something’s off, then yeah, unfortunately you’re probably better off leaving him off your networking list.

And if you’re thinking that it sucks that he’ll have essentially shrunk your professional opportunities simply because you are a woman … you’re right, it does. And it’s additionally frustrating that dudes who blithely go around hitting on the women in their professional networks — especially younger women with less professional power — seem to have no appreciation for why this kind of thing is such a crap deal for women.

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Ask a Boss: A Business Contact Keeps Hitting on Me!