Don’t Say That …
From inappropriate comments to illegal questions, some things are better left unsaid.
This month I received a few questions regarding what to say, or not to say, in business settings from boardrooms to bars.
Q: What’s the correct response to an inappropriate comment at a business function? Without going into specifics, I was at a networking event and a male business acquaintance commented on a certain area on my body. I always make it a point to dress and behave professionally and expect the same from others, but this happens more often than I’d like to admit. It makes me feel uncomfortable and frankly a bit offended at times. Considering I’ll continue to work with the person, what’s the most professional, appropriate and non-offensive way to respond in this type of situation?
A: Unfortunately, this type of behavior is still far more common than it should be, and often the other party doesn’t realize their comments or behavior are at best inappropriate for a business setting and at worst sexist. Rather, they believe they are just paying a nice compliment.
For the record, the workplace or a networking function — even those held at a watering hole, restaurant or some other casual locale involving alcohol — is not a singles bar. This goes for people of all genders, sexual orientations and marital statuses and applies to the office, the golf course and happy hour. It’s important to address the offensive comment, but since this is a business acquaintance or potential client, it’s key to proceed with caution.
In the South especially, but really no matter where you are, it’s often best to make your point with a healthy dose of humor tossed into the mix. A fellow journalist friend of mine from Texas often says something to the tune of, “Well, thank you, Mr. Smith! I bet you say that to your beautiful wife all the time, don’t you?” Then change the subject to a relevant business topic.
If the person isn’t married, or you aren’t sure, and you want to be more direct, say with a combination of seriousness and levity (which usually can be accomplished with a smile and a raised eyebrow), “Can we please stay focused here?” Again, move past it quickly with a subject change to keep the conversation flowing and avoid dwelling on the misstep.
Q: Recently, I was promoted into a management position at my company. I know there are certain questions it’s illegal to ask when interviewing a job candidate, such as inquiring about his age. What other questions should I avoid when conducting interviews?
A: Congratulations on your promotion! Yes, there are several questions that are off the table when conducting interviews. Not only is it potentially offensive to ask about certain subjects, but it could result in a lawsuit filed against you and your company.
Essentially, federal law makes it illegal for employers to base employment decisions on someone’s “protected characteristics,” for example, marital status, plans to have children, drug and alcohol use, and national origin. Some states have additional protections, outlawing questions that could reveal things like the applicant’s sexual orientation.
“An employer’s interview question about a protected characteristic can be evidence of discrimination,” cautions the website XpertHR.com.
Watch questions about social media as well. As of Aug. 1, 2014, employers in Louisiana are prohibited from asking questions that would allow them to access or observe someone’s personal social media accounts.
When in doubt — in a meeting, a networking event over cocktails or during an interview — keep personal matters out of the conversation. If you have to make small talk, brush up on your New Orleans Saints news. Who (could be offended by) dat?
Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.