Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.
The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.
Question: I’ve been at my company for many years, and I love the work and the people. However, it bothers me that one member of the C-suite treats male and female employees differently. If there’s an issue with a female employee, he will not speak directly with her. Instead, he communicates through our manager, although he will talk directly with men. This appears to be unequal treatment. How can I address this without making him mad or getting fired? We don’t have a diversity-and-inclusion initiative, and there are no policies in our handbook. – Anonymous
Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: While the optics might be bad, I wouldn’t immediately assume malice on his part. After the #MeToo movement began, one-third of executives reported changing their behavior to avoid anything that might be perceived as sexual harassment. Without a doubt, some of those changes can be overcorrections that create these unintended consequences, such as in your case where it appears to show up as unequal treatment.
First, ask your co–workers – male and female alike – if they share your sense that there is unequal treatment occurring. If there’s a consensus, then you can be confident there is a problem to solve. But if you find it’s just you, then it’s probably not worth taking the issue up the chain. Assuming your co–workers agree with your observations, you should request a meeting with your manager.
If you do escalate this to your manage, clarify at the outset that you’re there to improve understanding and solve a problem by openly sharing and candidly discussing how you both perceive the executive’s approach. And then be clear you have the most sincere of motivations and desire to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.
If these options don’t pan out, then it might be time to talk to HR (but not necessarily file a formal complaint), since the executive may be lacking some of the skills needed to navigate today’s dynamic and diverse workplaces.
Finally, and I feel strongly about this piece of advice: There’s no reason for you (given your level in the hierarchy of your company) to wade into this type of discussion with the C-suite executive involved in this situation. Once you’ve discussed it with your manager and HR, you should resist every temptation to tackle this situation any further. If the C-suite executive continues to engage in this type of behavior, it will ultimately be surfaced in the courtroom or in the media.
Workplace issue:Locker room talk… in the office? Ask HR
Company happy hour:My co-worker made a sexually suggestive remark: Ask HR
Question: One of my co-workers keeps asking me out for drinks. I’ve respectfully declined thus far, but he doesn’t seem to get the memo. Should I tell my boss? –Anonymous
Taylor.: I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with this. Work should be a place where you feel – at a minimum – comfortable, safe, and focused. His inability, or perhaps refusal, to leave you alone is simply unacceptable. No means no.
Since I don’t know the whole story, I want to be abundantly clear: If you feel unsafe, you should go to HR.
That said, your wording suggests that this guy might be more of a pest than a danger. For instance, because you “respectfully declined thus far,” I wonder if your co-worker truly understands you are not interested. Reflect on how you’ve worded your responses. Saying “I’m sorry, I’m busy tonight” or “thank you, but I can’t make it” is very different from “thank you, but I’m not interested in going out for drinks with you.”
Although often overlooked, direct versus indirect style is a critical part of communication. So, if your colleague isn’t catching your drift, he may be more receptive to direct messages that are spelled out explicitly instead of your more subtle messaging.
Ultimately, there are ways you can soften things to keep your interaction light. Try a bright tone of voice, open and confident body language, and a friendly but matter-of-fact smile. That way, he knows you’re not being mean or reveling in rejecting him. It’s just the truth, and you’re being honest! He should respect and appreciate that.
(To repeat, if you have been very direct, and he is still asking you out, then talking to your supervisor or HR is the right thing to do.)
Best of luck!