Playing Footsie

Playing Footsie

Playing Footsie

Katherine rechecked the figures on her report, while she waited for her secretary to collate the bounFeet-offd copies.

"Yep, these look good," she thought.

Although making a change in a sales compensation plan is often difficult to implement, Katherine had done her homework.  As an experienced compensation manager, she understood the company's marketing strategy and was confident about her data.  So she was prepared for any objection the executive vice president of marketing or vice president of sales might raise during the presentation.  And, with the full support of the company's chief financial officer, she knew she was golden. 

Besides, Jay Cooper, the executive vice president of marketing, was not known for his smarts.  A man in his late 50s with a handsome face and a twinkle in his eye, Jay was better known for his business connections and golf game than for his conceptual ability.  On the other hand, the vice president of sales, Lance Dodge, was very sharp.  Katherine knew  she'd have to go a round or two with him before getting the nod on her program.

"Katherine, here are your four copies.  They look great," Dee Dee smiled, as she handed Katherine the reports.

"Thanks, I'm on my way.  I'm going up a little early," Katherine told her as she dashed off to the executive floor.

When Katherine arrived, she arranged the conference table to her liking.  A few minutes later, Hal, the chief financial officer, walked in.

"Are you all set?" Hal grinned.

"All set," she returned.  "I really appreciate your being here.  Here's your copy of the report."

"I'm always glad to help, especially when I think it will help save the company money," he said with a wink.

A few moments later, Jay and Lance arrived.  All exchanged greetings and Katherine directed them to sit across from her and Hal.  She handed them copies of the report, and they went through its content in detail. 

When the vice president of sales took issue with the idea of removing the guaranteed bonuses from the plan, Katherine was ready.  She immediately launched into her discussion of total compensation and the purpose of variable pay programs.

"As you know, we've recently developed a new marketing strategy so we can maintain a competitive position," Katherine began.  "In order to link our reward systems to that marketing strategy, we need to ensure that we only pay for performance.  We simply can't afford to reward non-performance and stay in business.  Unfortunately, our current sales compensation program guarantees bonuses.  When we guarantee someone's bonus, there is no incentive for them to push our products.  This is not . . . "

Katherine stopped abruptly.  She felt a shoeless foot from under the table inching its way up her calf toward her inner thigh.  She noticed Jay sitting across from her with a mischievous grin on his face as he was sinking lower and lower in his seat.  She was horrified, but remained calm.

"Uh . . . This is not the message we want to communicate to our sales force," she resumed, directing her comments to Lance while she ignored Jay's intrusion under her skirt.

"Now, Kathy," Jay piped up, "don't you think it's really okay to guarantee those salespeople their bonuses?  You know times are hard, and we don't want to be losing them," he said, grinning while he pushed his foot a little farther up her leg.

Katherine took a very deep breath and steadied herself.  "Jay, their job is to make money.  When they do that they'll get a share–not before," she said forcefully.  Then she grabbed his foot and yanked it up to the table for everyone to see.  In the process, Jay nearly fell out of his chair and just barely missed scraping his chin on the table as she dragged him forward.  

"I think you've lost something here, and it's more than your old incentive plan!" she laughed, diffusing her own tension. 

"Okay, okay, Kathy!  Uncle, uncle!  You win," Jay said, howling with laughter.

Katherine shook her head.  "The things I have to put up with just to do my job," she thought.  She went back to the human resources department and dropped in on her colleague, Webster Grant, the employee relations manager. 

"You are not going to believe what Jay Cooper pulled today in a meeting," she said.  She told him the whole story.

"Look, Katherine, you've got to ignore those jerks.  They're just testing you to see how tough you are.  You passed their test and from now on the rest is easy street," Webster commented.

"Oh, that's a bunch of malarkey, Webster," Katherine retorted.  "You're just treating this casually because I'm in human resources and you think I'm not really going to do anything about it.  You're lucky I'm not some female marketing or advertising manager coming down here with the same complaint.  You'd be hot-footing it down there, investigating like mad."

"You're probably right, Katherine, but I know you, and I'm not worried," he smiled confidently.

Panel

Jay Cooper probably spent most of his working career "testing" female employees with unwelcome advances, comments, and other forms of behavior that smack of "good ol' boy" shenanigans.  Unfortunately, Jay and others like him operate under the premise that "to get along, you must play along."

Jay will not stop "testing" Katherine or other employees until management puts him clearly on notice that his actions will not be tolerated either by the company or fellow employees.  Although we don't know the culture of the organization, most of us feel Katherine should have reacted more forcefully and unequivocally.  She should have let Jay know that his behavior was not amusing and that he should keep his feet and hands to himself in the future–no if, ands, or toes about it! 

Although Katherine's actions may have momentarily stung "good ol' Jay,"  the results are probably only temporary.  He needs some education and he needs it fast.  Also, many of us think that Katherine could have racked up more points on the "toughness test" by reacting with less humor and more of a no-nonsense attitude. 

If Katherine accepts Jay's game and if Webster is right about the boys and their test, then she may have earned her place on "mahogany row."  However, we suspect that sooner or later the bill for Jay's behavior will come due.  Although Katherine doesn't appear ready to push now, she has a legitimate complaint and may not be silent forever, particularly if her career doesn't progress as Webster predicted.  If something goes wrong in the future, she might charge that her stalled career is really the result of a retaliatory response for humiliating Jay.  In preparing its defense, the company would have to demonstrate it handled the incident properly.  At this point it hasn't.

We think Webster was derelict in his responsibilities.  He is not only deferring the day of reckoning, but also substantially increasing potential costs for the company.   If the company is involved in litigation for a subsequent sexual harassment complaint, the investigation may reveal a pattern of poor and inconsistent handling of prior cases.  Instead, Webster and Jay's boss should have confronted Jay with a review of the company's sexual harassment policy and provided remedial training.  Webster should have also included a stern verbal and written warning stating that similar actions or behavior will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary actions, including termination.  Also, it is reasonable to demand an old-fashioned apology from Jay in this situation, such as, "I'm sorry I offended and embarrassed you, Katherine.  I assure you it won't happen again."

On the other hand, we can't fully ignore Katherine's actions.  While her anger was understandable, her physical maneuver could have had severe consequences.  Jay could have fallen and sustained a serious injury.

 Finally, as a human resources professional, Webster is responsible for safeguarding the rights of all employees.  He should not use a lesser standard for colleagues than he does for the general employee population.  He is obligated to assure Katherine that appropriate corrective measures will be taken and that the company is committed to maintaining a positive, non-hostile work environment.  

Legal:

Katherine's response to Jay's footsie game was appropriate, and we commend her ability to make it clear to Jay and the others in the meeting that his conduct toward her was unwelcome.  Because Katherine is a human resources manager she may be better equipped to respond more swiftly to Jay's conduct than some other employees.  But bringing public attention to and heaping some embarrassment on such offenders is sometimes the best medicine to cure unacceptable behavior. Employers, in training employees about sexual harassment, should instruct employees that the first step in combating sexual harassment in the workplace is to speak up, defend yourself, tell the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome, inappropriate, and must be stopped. 

Not every incident of inappropriate workplace behavior rises to the level of sexual harassment warranting a full-fledged investigation.  Some factors that need to be considered in determining how to proceed are the seriousness of the conduct at issue, whether the human resources department ever received harassment complaints about the individual in the past, the interests and wishes of the recipient of the conduct, whether there seems to be a pattern of misconduct by the individual, or whether there have been "rumors" about the individual's conduct.

Webster should have involved Katherine in his decision on how to handle the situation.  At a minimum, Webster should have spoken with Jay and made it clear to him that such conduct was inappropriate.  We would also suggest that Webster document the incident with the action that he took and place a copy of the documentation in Jay's personnel file, rather than simply shrugging off the episode.  If a pattern of such episodes should surface, stronger action would be necessary.

Excerpted from Sex, Laws, & Stereotypes, by N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.©

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