My Boss Sexually Harassed Me After Work

Last Updated Jul 19, 2010 6:15 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I'm a female in my mid-thirties. Last week I went out with my colleagues and we all consumed a ridiculous amount of alcohol. My attractive, married, Vice President was there and once we got to talking, things turned inappropriate pretty quickly. At first we were just talking, but as the night progressed it ended up getting physical and he exposed himself to me in the street and confessed to engaging in relations with another woman at the bar we were at. It was truly shocking.

During the night we were also texting. I have several texts from him where he is telling me sexual things that he wants to do to me and I am telling him that I just want to talk. The worst part is that during the course of the night, he told me if I said anything he would "take me down with him." Yesterday at work he cornered me in the hallway and caught me completely off-guard. He asked that we forget about everything and told me he hadn't been avoiding me for the past week, but he had just been really busy.

To be honest, I just want the whole thing to go away without anyone's career being impacted. This is not how I act around my boss though. Every time I see him I am uncomfortable because I am intimidated by him and the whole situation was really just mind-blowing. I am afraid that he is going to try to take me down anyway because I make him uncomfortable. Is there anything I can do to protect myself? Is it possible to report this to HR to document the incident, but ask them not to take disciplinary measures against him? I would just like to have this on the record in case he retaliates against me in some way. Should I just shut up and try my best to act normal? I am very distracted at work. Please help.

Before we talk advice about what you should do now, let's talk about what you should have done. Here is Evil HR Lady's little rule: When you are with people from work you are at work. Got that? You would never get plastered at work, so why on earth would you do that with people you work with? I mean, come on, this is really dumb behavior on every single person in that group's part. Seriously. Do not get drunk with co-workers and especially with your boss.

As for punishing him, he was disgusting and inappropriate, but you were inappropriate as well. Why did you text him? Why did you start flirting (which you were doing) with the married man? You undoubtedly knew he was married before you set foot in the bar.

Now that you've been appropriately chastised you will not ever do that again. (Right? Because if you're planning to go out drinking with co-workers again, you can stop reading this now, because I'm wasting my breath.)

Attorney Elisa W. Ungerman answered a question about an off-site situation like this:

You evidently, if not inadvertently crossed a line, but since it was off work site and not during work hours, there could be no workplace sexual harassment.

Your situation is similar, in that it happened after hours. However, because the VP has supervisory powers over you and because it did carry into the workplace by him making a threat to "take you down with him."

You won't be able to report this to Human Resources and have them not investigate, especially with the threat. The attorneys over at Lawyers.com advise

Your employer must take reasonable care to prevent sexual harassment and your employer must take reasonable care to promptly correct sexual harassment that has occurred. Your employer must thoroughly investigate your sexual harassment charge even if you ask her not to investigate.

Nonetheless, your employer has to make every effort to keep your identity confidential during and after the investigation.

Keeping your name out of it is impossible, given the situation. I mean, if someone complains that John has dirty pictures posted in his cube, I can launch an investigation without saying that it was Jane who complained. But, since the complaint is that he threatened your job after exposing himself to you, it's not like he won't know who reported it.

HR Guru Laurie Ruettimann recommends a new job, resigning and then reporting the behavior. Here's her reasoning:

There is no reason, ever, to tolerate a hostile work environment. It's insidious, it's damaging and it's unacceptable. I encourage you to stand up to anyone who harasses you and devalues your work. But if your employer hires or keeps on staff someone who thinks it's okay to treat you like a second-class citizen, that means your company is already broken.

Reporting the harassment and enlightening the "perp" is worthwhile; however, the most effective way to make the harassment stop is to formally reject your company, focus on your career and get the heck out of there. Implement a strategy of shock and awe. Trying to change the system from within has failed American women for decades. Don't be a sucker -- say "I quit" instead.

There are very real consequences to reporting the incident and staying on at that company. First of all, investigations--even if they go your way--probably will not result in the termination of the offender. (Although, if I could validate the claim that he threatened to take you down for telling, I'd be voting for termination, but that's going to be a he said/she said situation. Of course, where in the heck were your other co-workers when all of this was happening?) But, most sexual harassment situations are not so direct.

If the perpetrator is otherwise a good performing employee, most likely he'll receive a slap on the hand and a "don't do that again!" and perhaps some "sensitivity training." Which means he'll still be there and you'll still be there and holy uncomfortable, Batman.

Another clue that he wouldn't be fired is the extreme level of inappropriate behavior that went on. People don't go from Halo to Horns in 30 seconds flat. If this guy is getting drunk, making out with you, bragging about his extra-marital experiences, exposing himself to you and then threatening you about it, it's likely that he's done other, less overt, things in the past. And the company has likely ignored, glossed over, or done a perfunctory hand slap. For whatever reason, they like him.

While it's possible that this will be the last straw (and his threat may indicate that he's been threatened with termination before), it's also possible that it's not. I can't look into my crystal ball and predict what will happen. Save the text messages because that will protect you against the accusation that you are the crazy one who was hitting on him.

You get to make the decision to report or not report. Personally, if it were me, I'd report it because of the threat to take you down with him. That's what I call textbook sexual harassment. I would also start looking for a new job because if things go badly, you'll want out. I also need to warn you that you may be attacked and your behavior may called into question. (As I said earlier, you don't have any halos on yourself.)

The reality is that it will be impossible to go to the "before" status of your relationship with your Vice President. So, don't think that that can happen. It won't. And I'm sorry about that. 

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