A Case of Harassment?

Erin Dempsey was working late trying to finish the analysis of the ticket report for her boss, Ron Hanson. The deadline was tomorrow, and she still had several hours of work to do before the analysis would be finished. Erin did not particularly enjoy working late, but she knew Ron would be expecting the report first thing in the morning. She had been working very hard recently, hoping that she would earn a promotion to senior travel agent at the large urban travel agency where she was employed. Getting the ticket report done on time would be absolutely essential for any promotion opportunities.

Matt Owens, a co-worker at the agency, was also working late that evening. Suddenly, he appeared in her office uninvited and sat down in the side chair. “Got a big date tonight, eh Erin?” Matt said with a touch of sarcasm in his voice.

“I’m working very hard on the ticket report tonight Matt, and I really could use a bit of privacy.” Erin had sensed before that Matt was a pest and she hoped that by being rather direct with him he would leave her alone.

“ A cute chick like you shouldn’t waste a perfectly good Wednesday evening working late.”

“Please Matt, I’ve got work to do.”

“Oh come on Erin. I’ve noticed the way you act when you walk by my office or when we pass in the halls. It’s clear that you’re dying to go out with me. Sometimes a guy can just sense. This is your big chance. I’ll tell you what. Let’s got to dinner at that new intimate French restaurant up on the hill. Afterwards we can stop by my place for some music, a fire in the fireplace, and a nightcap. I make a great Black Russian. What do you say?”

Erin was furious. “I just say you’re an egotistical, self-centered, obnoxious, dirty old man. If you don’t get out of here right now, I’m going to call Ron Hanson at home and tell him that you’re keeping me from finishing the ticket report.”

“Oh my, you’re even sexier when you’re angry. I like that in a woman.”

Erin could see that she was getting nowhere fast with this approach, so she decided to leave the room in hopes that Matt would get the hint and go home. As she stormed through the door, Matt mockingly held the door ajar, said “after you, sweet thing,” and then patted Erin on the backside as she passed. Erin stopped in her tracks, turned to Matt, and said, If you ever do that again, I’ll . . . “ She was so mad that she couldn’t think of an appropriate threat. So instead she just stormed off down the hall and left the building.

The next morning, Erin was waiting in the office of Daryl Kolendich, the owner of the travel agency, when he arrived at work. Erin knew that Ron Hanson would probably be angry that she had gone over his head to the agency owner, but she was so furious with Matt Owens and she wanted immediate action. She described the incident to Daryl and demanded that some sort of disciplinary action be taken with Matt.

“Now calm down, Erin. Let’s think through this problem a bit first. Isn’t it possible that we can handle this sort of problem yourself? Is it possible that you may in fact have been encouraging Matt to act this way? Look, I understand that you’re upset. I would be too, if I were in your shoes. But look at it this way. We’ve been hiring male travel agents for only the last few years now. Prior to that time there were only female agents, so problems like these never arose. Matt is from an older generation than yours. It takes times for men like him to get used to working on an equal basis with women. Can’t you just try to make sure over the next few weeks that you give him no encouragement at all? If you do, I’m sure this problem will take care of itself.”

Erin was not all convinced. “But I did it very clear I was not interested in him. It seemed to make him even more persistent. You’re the owner and the boss here, and I’ll do what you ask, but it seems to me that it’s your responsibility to make sure this kind of sexual harassment doesn’t take place in the agency.”

“Erin, has your supervisor Ron Hanston ever suggested that you’re job opportunities here would be improved if you went out with him? Have I ever in any way intimated that a day with me could lead to a promotion for you?”

Erin was silent. It was true that none of the management staff at the agency had been guilty of sexual harassment. In fact, both Ron and Daryl I had been highly supportive of her work ever since she arrived. Her annual pay raises had been higher than those of most other co-workers, both male and female.

Daryl broke the silence. “I guess my point is that we don’t have a sexual harassment situation here. Please try what I’ve suggested and let me know in a couple of weeks if you feel it hasn’t worked.”


1. What is sexual harassment in the workplace? Was Matt Owens guilty of sexual harassment?

2. If you were Erin Dempsey, what would you do?