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Home | Got a Minute | Bad bosses | No. 4 – I find my boss’ attention creepy. Do I have to put up with it to get ahead?

No. 4 – I find my boss’ attention creepy. Do I have to put up with it to get ahead?

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10 March 2021

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a minute?” Following International Women’s Day on Monday, this week we bring you questions with a focus on gender equality including how to handle unwanted attention in the office, false commitments to a fairer workplace, and “quota” as a buzzword.

My manager pays more attention to me than others in our hospitality team. The benefit is that I get better shifts, but I also find his attention creepy and embarrassing. I know the company has a Human Resources contact but given how small my team is, I’m scared to get in touch with them. I feel like my options are limited and that I have to put up with it if I want to keep my job. What else can I do?

Sadly, your letter is going to resonate with women all over Australia. So, first I want to pass on some advice to your manager, or anyone else in a position of power who may be wondering if they’re guilty of similar behaviour.

Just stop. Stop making your employees feel uncomfortable, stop treating them as anything other than professional colleagues. Treat your employees with respect and dignity; you should be role modelling the behaviours expected of you. Also be on notice that if you don’t stop, you should expect to lose your job.

To our questioner, thank you for the courage you have shown in speaking up. You deserve to work in an environment where you can work free of any kind of special attention or harassment. Your safety and wellbeing are paramount and so whatever action you take, that should be your first priority.

I recognise that all too often reporting sexual harassment at work means your job could become untenable, so while it is easy for me to say, ‘report his behaviour’, I know that is not going to be easy. If you feel you can, I do think speaking up is important because behaviour like this thrives with silence.

And remember, this type of behaviour is rarely an isolated incident. If you are experiencing it, chances are that others have also. You could consider going to HR together – strength in numbers is always reassuring.

Ideally HR will have a mechanism for providing you with support and advice, while intervening and addressing your manager’s behaviour, including appropriate warnings to him should the behaviour continue.

I work in an industry where people tend to remain for a long time. While my CEO has now declared himself strongly committed to gender equality, he and his all-male leadership team are also the same blokes that blocked my progress and behave badly towards women. Do you think things can actually change while these men are still in power?

The real question you seem to be asking is whether you can trust your male leaders to genuinely “walk the talk” on gender equality in the face of feeling cynical that they may just be “ticking boxes” and don’t really believe it.

There is no doubt there are some leaders who speak authentically about understanding that their actions in the past were part of the unconscious (or often conscious) biases that affected women.

These leaders put resources and funding into supporting women in their workplace, they amplify the successes and voices of women wherever they can, they set specific goals for gender equality and measure progress, and they make sure that any systemic issues preventing women from succeeding are removed. These leaders also work hard to ensure that all-male leadership teams are a relic of the past.

Unless you see the leaders of your business displaying these behaviours every single day to help women succeed, I agree it will be difficult to see how things will change.

‘Quota’ seems to be the workplace buzzword of the 21st century. Businesses have no issue virtue signalling that it is a direction they will take, so surely it is a waste of time for men like me to apply when we have no chance of getting the job?

Have you considered that you may not actually be the best person for the role and that is why you are not getting the job? It may also be worth reflecting on whether you may have benefited from successfully getting jobs in the past because women were not welcomed to apply so your competition was halved. Times have changed; as you say, this is the 21st century after all.

Send your curly questions about work, career, leadership and anything in between to Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

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