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My manager called an employee into his office today with myself (assistant manager) present to speak to her about not giving her number out to customers while working which he witnessed her do the previous day.

He then asked her if she had been "intimate" with the man claiming he needed to know because the man was now here and in case he needed to ask the man to leave, he didn't want them to claim he was dating the employee.

Is this sexual harassment and what should I do? I have a call into HR, but I'm now feeling that may be too extreme.

closed as off-topic by gnat, Snow, Mister Positive, Jim G., Frank FYC Oct 13 '17 at 4:21

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  • 3
    Where is this? The location is key. In the European Union, the manager would get in trouble for asking such a question. The only question he could ask is if she wants to talk to him or not. Anything above that, and that's none of his business. Is the manager trying to manage the employee's love life? Have you spoken to the employee in question? What is her take on the situation? – Stephan Branczyk Oct 12 '17 at 2:59
  • Again, if you're in the US, this wouldn't apply, but if you were in Europe, those rights would come from the Article 8 of the Europe Convention Human Rights Act citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-courts/civil-rights/human-rights/… (I realize the act talks about the State not having the right to interfere with your private life, but I've seen private employers sued under that same article 8, so I assume it applies to both states and private employers). – Stephan Branczyk Oct 12 '17 at 3:27
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    @StephanBranczyk Even if there's no actual/explicit law in the USA forbidding such a thing, at the very least it would still be considered highly inappropriate. If the manager is concerned about some potential conflict of interest, there're other/better ways to express such concerns, but asking anyone whether they've been "intimate" with someone else or not is no one else's business (no pun intended). At best, a person might have an obligation to disclose the existence of some kinds of relationships precisely to avoid such conflicts, and not doing so might get them in trouble, etc. – code_dredd Oct 12 '17 at 4:56
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    @StephanBranczyk I don't know if it can be said to be harassment, but I'll note that there're things that are illegal that are not necessarily harassment. For example, during job interviews it's illegal to ask questions about someone's marital status, religion, and so on in most contexts (e.g. there're exceptions, where religious institutions can ask you about your religion and can legally discriminate on that basis for purposes of them being able to maintain their religious identity, etc.). So, yes, while some things may not be harassment, they could be illegal. OP should ask a lawyer. – code_dredd Oct 12 '17 at 5:25
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    Can you add a location tag? If this happened in the US, then you witnessed a form of sexual harassment. (verbal) – Mister Positive Oct 12 '17 at 12:08
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Is this sexual harassment and what should I do?

No, it's not sexual harassment. In fact he spoke in front of you to avoid any ideas of impropriety. You shouldn't get involved, you may not know all the facts. The question he asked her probably isn't the best way to do it, but that isn't your problem.

If you felt strongly about the way he was questioning her, you should have said something to him at the time. Going to HR with hear say is a totally different matter.

It has a slight chance of looking like sexual harassment and maybe even sticking if the actual lady pushed the matter. But not just a bystander. Formally accusing your manager of sexual harassment on behalf of someone else who hasn't actually complained is more than a little risky.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Oct 13 '17 at 12:31
4

You've put a call into HR, so let them deal with it.

They'll take the information onboard and deal with it in the appropriate fashion, based on the laws and regulations for your company and country.

2

The definition of Sexual Harassment found by Ilsi has actually changed my mind.

In its broadest definition:

Sexual harassment is bullying or coercion of a sexual nature,

Yes, in this instance, a manager using his position of authority and power to reprimand a female employee for having given out her phone number to a male suitor, and then preventing that male suitor from speaking to that employee (or giving her a message). Yes, I think that qualifies as sexual harassment in the broadest definition (and I'm not even talking about the highly inappropriate question he asked her).

That being said, that same wikipedia page goes on to say that:

The legal and social understanding of sexual harassment, however, varies by culture.

So that makes the question much trickier since we do not even know which jurisdiction or which culture this is in.

So if what happened doesn't constitute sexual harassment under the legal definition of the term, I think that the OP should consider looking at the definition of sexual discrimination in her jurisdiction. Or if it's in Europe, I think she might want to consider it a violation of her right to a private life under Article 8 of the Europe Convention Human Rights Act.

Because we have five potential issues here:

  1. The right to privacy about your personal sexual life.

  2. The right to give out your personal phone number to a customer.

  3. The right to talk to someone who comes to your place of business to personally talk to you (or to give you a message).

  4. And assuming the manager would have no problem if a family member or if a woman had come talk to her, more specifically, the question is whether the employee has the right to talk (or receive a message) from a potential male suitor at her workplace. Is that not allowed?

  5. Or perhaps, an even better question, would a male employee be allowed to speak to a woman who comes to see him at his place of business regarding a personal matter. Will the manager interfere and ask if the male employee has been "intimate" with that woman? Or are these questions only reserved for his female employees? Hence, if she's treated differently because she's a woman, that is why I think it could be considered sexual discrimination.

Again, I believe that the jurisdiction you're in would be useful to know. Also, you should probably take a look at your employee handbook and code of conduct just in case.

Also, those issues are compounded by the fact that you're not the woman in question, you're the witness. How did the woman feel about the manager's behavior?

  • 1
    I wouldn't consider reporting inappropriate behaviour to be "fighting someone else's battles" as much as it's the right thing to do. I was initially more thinking, if the behaviour is indeed inappropriate, in terms of whether OP is at risk here for witnessing / implicitly being part of and not reporting it. – Dukeling Oct 12 '17 at 5:40
  • @Dukeling, that's a good point. I hadn't thought of that. – Stephan Branczyk Oct 12 '17 at 5:41
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    While you make a lot of good points, this doesn't actually answer the question being asked. – David K Oct 12 '17 at 12:02
  • Point 1 is only valid if you make sure you keep it personal yourself. It's no longer personal if you bring it to work via a customer, or as sometimes happens, a co-worker. – cdkMoose Oct 12 '17 at 18:50
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    @cdkMoose, I am sorry, but if a customer asks me for my phone number, which I give him, and if that customer comes back to my workplace to talk to me. That doesn't give my manager the right to get a witness, reprimand me in his office, and then ask if I was "intimate" with that person. It's just like if you got married this weekend, you told everyone in the office, that doesn't give me the right to ask you to come to my office for the purpose of finding out if your wife likes the missionary position. – Stephan Branczyk Oct 12 '17 at 23:01
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Is this sexual harassment?

Honestly, I'm not sure. This will vary a lot depending on what your local laws are. It seems like the manager had good intentions motivating his questions and thought he was doing the right thing (though clearly missed the mark). Having you there as a neutral witness to the conversation is evidence of that. It's appropriate for him to tell your coworker not to give out her phone number to customers. In my opinion it's none of his business whether she has been intimate with a customer or not. I don't fully understand why he thinks he would need to ask the customer to leave and why it would matter if he were dating your coworker.

What should I do? I have a call into HR, but I'm now feeling that may be too extreme.

I say proceed with the call, and be completely honest about the situation. Say that you don't know whether what the manager did was harassment or not, but it seemed inappropriate and made you feel uncomfortable. The HR people will have a better understanding of whether this is classified as harassment or not. Also, as others have mentioned, be sure to tell your coworker what you plan to do. You don't want her to be blindsided if HR decides to contact her. Whether or not this leads to harassment claims, it should at least start a conversation about what is and is not appropriate.

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First, I would say that may be for her to decide. Did she feel harassed? Your role would be that of a neutral witness.

Second, you probably want to prevent such awkward situation in the future - so even if she did not feel harassed, you may want to talk to you manager.

What I would do:

  1. Have an informal talk with that employee, tell her that you are sorry you where a part of that conversation and find out if she feels bad about it. If she does, you can support her filing of a report to HR. Just don´t push her in any direction. let her decide.

  2. Speak to your manager, especially if the employee will let it pass. Tell him you found his wording unfortunate and bordering on sexual harassment. Maybe he will explain his rational to you and you can both find a way to how you company handles such situation in a more appropriate fashion. This should be a constructive talk.

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