My PA tried to get me fired

A manager’s private chats with his personal assistant found their way to HR and now she’s made a complaint against him.

Our elder has some career-saving strategies—including not over-sharing in future.

Dear EWC

So here is the issue… at work, I have a personal assistant and we talk about everything. Work stuff, home life, etc. We never talk about each other in any way as I am a straight man and she is a gay woman. She has pointed out women and said inappropriate things about them, called women sexy, fat, ugly, etc. She has told me several times about her sex life (detailed), and previous romances, etc. I, rather stupidly, have shared some of mine with her as well.

Today, she called in to work. I get a call from our corporate HR department saying she had made complaints against me. I listened to the complaints and, yes, we have had the types of conversations we had discussed. I did not deny that at all. She sent them the texts and audio recordings of our conversations with one major omission: The audio was edited to where you only heard me, and the texts she sent were only of things I had said. The funny thing is, 90% of what I read and was hearing, were things she initiated.

Now, none of those were ever directed at her (as in not sexual harassment) but as a hostile, uncomfortable workplace thing. Yesterday, I got on to her for the way she dresses. Not that it’s too provocative or anything, but too casual for the workplace. She was highly offended by this. This is what I believe led to her doing all this. Now, HR is telling me they will have to write me up (understandable), but can’t guarantee I will keep my job. I have had three other assistants prior to her and have never had a single complaint lodged against me. My thing is, shouldn’t she face the same? Even the HR director admitted that he’s 100% sure that the texts and audio was edited to make me look bad and her like a saint. So, if I get fired for this, what can I do (besides learn an obvious lesson)?

Elder Paul-Dad replies

Thanks for your letter.

With three years in the Army and 39 years working for two major corporations, I witnessed management attitudes change from indifferent to extremely vigilant in regard to claims made about any kind of sexual harassment or inappropriateness. I must agree with you that you might be fired due to these accusations, and, at the least be written up with a warning or probation.

My first advice to you would be to write an email to the HR person that you spoke to. Give your side to the story in as condensed a form as possible. Mention that the audio recording was edited, and you have no idea of what is stated, what is omitted, and if recordings purported to be of your voice may have been altered or spliced. Don’t speak of any faults of your Personal Assistant. This isn’t about her. It’s about a male in a supervisory capacity who is accused of impropriety with a female subordinate. I don’t have to tell you that it’s not an even playing field. Due to centuries of denial of rights and privileges to women and persons with alternative lifestyles, corporations are adamant that the disadvantaged be treated fairly and that transgressors are dealt with promptly.

Your email outlining your side of the story may not save you, but it will be impossible for HR to ignore. It will be sent to your manager and to the HR staffer’s manager. It will serve as a written reply to the allegations made and could be helpful to you in the final outcome.

I would strongly advise any male supervisor (or female supervisor, for that matter) to refrain from discussing improper apparel with a subordinate. If the company has a written dress code and a subordinate is clearly violating it, talk to HR, give the details, and follow their suggestions. Dress codes are a rarity these days, and speaking to an employee about a violation, without prior HR guidance, is a lose-lose step for a manager. Hairstyles, dress, grooming, and modesty are subjective and may be interpreted differently by persons of different gender, race, age, culture and national origin. If you ever feel you have to go there again, go to HR first for guidance.

Don’t let the truth be a victim but don’t be overly defensive with HR or management. Emphasize that you were just trying to build a collegial relationship with your associate and that she had never complained about you previously in any manner. Your good record with three prior assistants is also a valid point to mention. Don’t make it about her weaknesses. You’ll score no points and it will only make you look petty.

In future communications with subordinates, avoid the temptation to create a friendly relationship in which personal matters are discussed freely and one in which attributes of the attractiveness of others are fair game.  Sure, you can be friendly, and you may ask polite questions about a subordinates life and family, but tread carefully. Your subordinate is your working associate, not your friend or confidante. Keep it professional. It may seem uncomfortable, and it may feel like an injection of class distinction, but it’s what you’re paid to do, and it will keep you out of trouble. This is a bit of a harsh quote, but it has some validity; “if you want a friend, get a dog”.

I hope you survive this with your job intact. If you are fired for this matter, be assured that it’s unlikely that any record or details of your termination will be relayed to any future employers that may seek a reference. The company that you left will generally only provide dates of service and your job title. This is because they don’t want to be sued for possibly giving out misleading or defamatory information.

Good luck to you. While this matter is distressing to you, it will be a great learning lesson. If you wind up changing jobs, in almost every case the change, over time, will be for the better.  Thanks for writing to us. We’re always here for you at EWC, and we’re especially flattered when satisfied advice seekers recommend our service to their friends.

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