In A Man’s Business

Question:

I have a huge problem at work and it is affecting every part of my job. What can I do to turn stop this, or is it too late? First, I have a new job at a new dealership. Well it is at least still new to me. I have only been there about 2 months. My new manager and I have become fantastic friends—I stress FRIENDS. He is 54 years old (I am only 25). We talk a lot on the phone and text quite often as well. I have a 30-minute drive to work. And he has 45-minute drive; so we have some good long conversations on our way to/from work. I have a fantastic boyfriend that I live with, and he has a girlfriend that he has been with for 10 years that he lives with and we are both happy in our relationships. My boyfriend knows how much I communicate with my boss, and has no problem with it. I have only lived in this state for a little over 3 months and haven’t met very many friends. So it is nice to have someone to talk to about issues, work and personal. My family is also so far away that he’s kind of’ been like a second father to me! This is the background for you Here is the story: I found out today that my bosses cell phone bill gets paid for by the company, and that the owner questioned my boss about the calls and messages to my #. The red flag was my out of state number, and he confirmed it with my file, wanting to know “exactly what is going on” between us. My boss thought he explained it pretty well–that we were friends and nothing more and that our significant others have even met each other. He THOUGHT it was over until I got called to the office today and was asked the same thing. After retelling the “just friends” speech to the owner I was asked if my boss is harassing me in any way and taking advantage of his position. I said no, and then I was asked if I thought it would continue. I said I hope we stay very good friends, and I also hope that there is nothing wrong with that. I said that I really don’t think it should matter whether we are friends or not outside of work. I then had to sign a piece of paper stating that we were in fact just friends and that there was no type of harassment going on. He still apparently doesn’t believe my boss or me because he “just doesn’t understand why we would make that many phone calls between each other if there wasn’t something more going on.” He is now questioning everything we do, the reason we both have the same day off (which has been the same since my first week), what other people think could be going on…etc. Now I feel like I am under a microscope. I have done nothing wrong, but I am being watched. My boss also hangs out with my other coworkers, but they are all men (there just aren’t many women in the car business). He also talks to them on his phone, but that is ok. I feel like I am being punished in the most different way just because I am female. He made me sign a piece of paper just in case something turns up. Am I not allowed to speak to him outside of work anymore now just because I am a woman? The guys can still hang out with him, but not me because there could be SOMETHING ELSE IN THE WORKS. This is so ridiculous.

I understand why he was concerned at first because he didn’t want any harassment lawsuits or anything, not like I am that type of person anyway. But after both of us explained ourselves, we are now still being watched, and I think this is WRONG. I don’t really think it is any of his business what either of us does after hours, especially if it is ok for his phone to be used personally with the guys here but not me. I guess when we all go out for drinks this week; I shouldn’t be invited because I’m the only girl?

I know that personal relationships are forbidden between most managers and employees, but what about I didn’t know there was a law about friendships! I am so upset. He was really there for me when I first moved here and needed a friend, and I just feel like I am being treated unfairly. This is the first time ever that I have felt like I have received unfair treatment at work which is surprising since I am in the car business which is also pretty much looked at as a “man’s business.” What should I do? Is there anything I can say, or am I just supposed to let this go?

Signed,

In A Man’s Business


Answer:

DearĀ In A Man’s Business:

I can understand that this situation seems unfair to you since you sincerely value the friendship with your manager. I can also understand how such a friendship can develop. I hope though that you will step back a pace and look at what has happened, what has been said and what is being asked of you. That perspective might help you see this in a less punitive way, and will help you respond to it in a way that shows a businesslike approach.

First, consider the thousands of EEO complaints that are made about situations that started just like yours. The owner of your company would be foolish to ignore a situation in which a male manager is making lengthy phone calls every day to a new, much younger, female employee. Gender does matter in these cases and it is appropriate for it to be considered. Your tenure on the job and time in the area is also an issue since you are particularly vulnerable to overtures of friendship at this stage. Further, the company is paying the bills and has a right to ask about excessive phone calls.

You indicate that your manager also talks to male employees, but I doubt that you have any way of knowing how many minutes are spent talking to them by phone compared to the amount spent talking to you. The owner does know that, and that may be part of his thought process about this.

Of course there isn’t a law about friendships between managers and subordinates. But, the owner of the company does have the authority to say what he will and will not allow regarding bosses and subordinates, during work and away from work. It is the owner of the company who would be liable if something were to go wrong and a complaint is made. It is also the owner who must deal with the issues that result if the friendship is more than a friendship if the friendship is so deep that it distracts from work or if there is an appearance of favoritism that results in resentment by other employees.

You asked if all of this means you can’t go with the group for a drink or can’t be invited to outings. It doesn’t appear that the owner has prohibited you from any of that. If that becomes the case, then you might have a situation about which you could complain based on inequality and bias. At this point the owner is simply questioning the motives behind the large amount of phone calls. He asked you if you were being harassed. That is a logical and wise question to ask. Now, he wonders why the two of you would be on the phone so much if the situation was only platonic. That doesn’t sound like an unreasonable concern. You must admit, looking at it from the outside, it might appear to have the potential for something else. And you don’t know the history of the company in relation to situations such as this.

The one thing I think the owner needs to do is put the focus on the manager. It is your manager is really the one who is responsible for considering this situation and working to ensure that you are not harmed by it. He has more time with the company, more experience as a manager and more years to have learned about these kinds of issues. He should not be surprised that this is being viewed as potentially problematic. He should also be sensitive to the fact that his actions, while motivated by friendship, might cast you in a negative light. Rarely do companies have policies about subordinates fraternizing inappropriately with managers and supervisors, but they often have such policies for the managers and supervisors regarding subordinates.

I also want you to consider this: Your manager is your friend, but the owner can fire both of you. So, rather than resenting the owner, make every effort to see his viewpoint and work to be a problem-solver about this and other matters. Consider what you want to maintain. You want your job and you want a friendship with your manager. In order to have both, you both may need to make adjustments to the way you are now doing things. What about talking at home, using your home phones, instead of using the company phone? Could you reduce the number and frequency of calls to a level that is more acceptable? It appears to be the phone calls that are creating the concern, so those are the best areas for adjustment. Many people have deep friendships without hours of phone calls a week, so that shouldn’t change your relationship in a negative way.

I am aware that sometimes these things seem unfair. But I am also aware that the situation you describe would not be viewed positively by any organization I know about. This may be one of those situations that will be a learning experience–although a very frustrating one. I hope this gives you a viewpoint that is helpful.

Thinking WEGO means thinking of the big picture.

Tina Lewis Rowe