In my first book, The Discreet Guide for Executive Women, I devoted a whole chapter to sex in the workplace and cautioned my readers that sleeping with a colleague can be the quickest way to ruin a blossoming career. Certain conditions heighten the danger of making such a mistake, and many of those are on hand when you travel: alcohol, fatigue, after-hours socializing with male colleagues, and distance from home. It’s no surprise that Ellen Pao, who later sued her venture capital employer for sexual discrimination, first got into trouble by sleeping with a co-worker while on a business trip to Germany. That set the stage for the jury to question her judgment and ultimately rule against her.
A friend recounted a situation she got involved in when a female subordinate slept with a male co-worker at a sales conference. My friend was directed by her managers to “talk to” the young woman and reprimand her for her behavior. “What about the guy?” my friend objected. “How come he isn’t being ‘talked to?’” Unfair? Yes. Sexist? Yes. But it’s a clear indication of whom society and corporate America blame when sex happens during business travel. It behooves us to pay attention to that. Women will pay more of a price than guys will if stuff happens while traveling.
Business travel often throws workers together in a context that doesn’t exist at home, or at least not to such a degree: eating and drinking together, learning each other’s habits, getting to know each other more intimately. People can grow close when they travel together—you just don’t want that to cross a line that you’ll regret. It may be up to you to step back when you pick up on a vibe that is going in a direction that you’re not comfortable with.
So be alert. If you find yourself out with colleagues, and the conversation starts getting too risque, keep it simple and just go home. Had too much to drink? Go home. Run out of conversation? Go home. Find yourself one on one with someone when everyone else has left? Go home. These are all dangerous situations to get yourself into. Your professional self will thank you in the morning for not taking unnecessary risks.
Watch out for your male colleague too. If his attitude toward you starts to shift toward flirtatious, be ready to cool that down. If his reserve starts to break down, cut that off. If he’s a good guy, he doesn’t really want to get involved with you—he just might be a little lonely, or jet lagged, or mad at his girlfriend. If he’s someone you care about, you can help him from making a mistake, and he too will appreciate that in the morning.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t participate in social events when you’re traveling. Those are great opportunities to build relationships and have fun. Your colleagues and customers can get to know you in a more casual environment which can be very beneficial, especially if you don’t have many chances to bond in the workplace. But be vigilant that you maintain your professional face and reputation, even as others let their guard down. Making a scene, getting drunk, mouthing off, or hooking up with someone are all behaviors that you want to stay way away from. You want to return from your trip with success stories, not new doses of shame and guilt.
© 2016 Jennifer K. Crittenden