When Your Client Hits On You: How to Deal with Unwanted Sexual Advances at Work

How to handle it when your client hits on you How should you handle it when your client hits on you? We got an emergency email from reader K, who is getting a bit uncomfortable with a prospective customer and his unwanted sexual advances at work — the client asked her out!

I am a [physical product that attaches to buildings*] sales woman. During intermittent conversation with a prospective client I mentioned I am a dancer, he mentioned he used to take dance classes. He asked if my “honey” takes me dancing and I said (in hindsight, I should have just said yes) but I just said “our schedules don’t match up well.”

Later on we were talking about the project via text and he randomly says “we should go dancing!” I said (probably not the best response) “sure – maybe after we figure out these projects” to which he replied, “might have to see how good of a dancer you are first.”

What on earth do I say to that? I don’t want to lose the project (he owns 3 properties that he wants [physical product that attaches to buildings] on), but of course, I am also happily engaged, and not interested in dancing with strangers… all other conversations with him have been appropriate.

I saw there was another post along these lines but the context is a bit different and I’d love some advice from the horse’s mouth. HELP!

Eeesh. We have talked about the sexist client before (a client commented five times in one lunch on the OP’s beauty), as well as in the offensive client (who commented loudly about the price of his lawyer’s purse), but we haven’t talked about a direct request for a date before, and I’m curious to hear what readers say. Some thoughts:

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  • Politely, but firmly, tell him you’re not interested. You can say it however you want to: “No time to go out dancing since I’m busy planning my wedding!” will work, but “I’m so sorry but I don’t date clients!” is stronger. Note that the weaker you make it — you’re busy that night; you’re engaged at the moment — the less potency it will have, and you’ll just have to have the talk all over again.
  • Keep it strictly professional. Don’t give him mixed messages — and go with your gut in terms of how much time alone with him you spend. If your Creepometer is off the charts, listen to that feeling.
  • Some business isn’t worth having. Give yourself a maximum of two tries to nip his interest in the bud. Say it politely once; say it less politely if he needs to hear it a second time. If you’re still uncomfortable, move on. This guy is giving you more anxiety than he’s worth.

Ladies, what are your thoughts about what to do when your client hits on you? How would you respond to getting asked out by a client, and what do you think Reader K should say in this circumstance? In general, how do you respond to unwanted sexual advances at work?

* I don’t normally redact reader emails, but this one seemed super specific so I thought it seemed warranted.

Pictured: Wow, I had no idea that dancing hasn’t been allowed in Tokyo night clubs since 1948 — I did a Google search thinking I’d seen some funny images during the most recent Olympics and came up with all of these signs that are actually posted outside clubs. Yowza. Looks like that’s changing, though…

Social media picture credit: Fotolia / highwaystarz

when your client hits on you - how to deal with unwanted sexual advances at work

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Comments

  1. Kat – I think you missed redacting the identifying information in the 2nd paragraph (these —— projects).

  2. I’m also in sales, and this happened to me at a conference. A current client of mine would.not.stop hitting on me, sending flirty texts, and insisting that he pay for my drinks. I tried really hard to disengage from the flirting- but I had to maintain a friendly working relationship. I brought in my manager to most meetings with him for a while, and it mostly calmed down. I also tried to include his manager and both of our coworkers as often as possible, so that we were never alone together. If you have a manager you can trust, this is a great time to bring them in!

  3. Cream Tea :

    How about a simple, “let’s just keep this professional” and change the subject back to the work.

  4. I think part of the problem here is that the comments you have made could be construed as encouraging. I know you didn’t mean it that way, but from reading it, it sounds like he could perceive you to be flirting back (you stated a willingness to go dancing with him; you suggested that your partner was unable to fulfill your desire to do this activity). I think it’s early to assume he’s being really aggressive, since so far its just been flirty texts which you have responded to in a way that could be interpreted as positive. Unless I’m missing something.

    I would just keep things super professional from here on. If he asks you to go dancing again, I might initially respond in a softer way (my fiance is actually taking me this weekend! Thanks though!) and only escalate (I’m not interested) if it’s repeated or if he pushes.

    I suspect if you just turn down any further advances and keep things strictly professional, the situation will correct itself. If needed, you can be a bit cooler, but I don’t think you need to be super “strong” or defensive right off the bat. And if he doesn’t know your in a relationship, maybe casually bring up the fiance/wedding.

    • Wildkitten :

      It sounds to me like a peer (client, not boss) asked her on a date and she said yes and now he is flirting with her. It sounds like so far the mistakes have been made involve extremely poor communication if you don’t want to go dancing with this guy. Clear up the confusion.

    • +1. I would cut the guy a little slack; he asked you out and you said “sure.” He’s not being super aggressive. In my opinion it’s a little unprofessional for a potential client to ask out a potential vendor, ESPECIALLY if that potential vendor is wearing a ring, but he asked you in a clear, non-aggressive way. And he thought you said yes. Now you need to make it clear that you didn’t mean that. I think just turn him down the next time he asks.

      • To me this read like offering to play tennis when your partner is out of town. Just move on with the professional communications, and it will take care of itself.

  5. * you’re in a relationship. sorry.

  6. Yay! Finaly I see that I am not the ONLEY woman who get’s hit on by client’s. FOOEY on men that do this. It shows a TOTAL lack of respect for our PROFESSIONAL STATUS as attorney’s and counselor’s at law. I get this about 3x a year, from NEW client’s who think I am ONLEY there as window dressing and not as a professional. Because of client CONFIENCES, I cannot reveal the name of the company, but after I made my POWERPOOINT presentiation to the company, the COO of the Company came up to me and put his arm around me, slapped me on the tuchus and said he liked what I had to offer. And the manageing partner was sitting right there! The sin of it was that the manageing partner did NOT say he was rude–he was so INTERESTED in me getting the busness that he did NOT care that the guy had slapped me on the tuchus! I think that was totally rude.

    We did get the business, and since then, I have told the COO he was VERY inappropriate in slapping me on the tuchus. That is something that ONLEY my husband will be abel to do. FOOEY on men like that.

  7. I know a few people that are really into swing dancing. While some people do it as a date, many people do it as a hobby and swing dance with all sorts of people, partnered and not. If the male friend I have in mind that swing dances met a fellow female swing dancer he would say “let’s dance sometime” and not at all mean it as a date. Like, lets go to the same swing dance event and swing dance. I also know a male and female tap dancer, both married who tap dance together. So…. if he is a really serious dancer, any chance this was meant the way two business people might play golf together?

    Otherwise, trust your instincts and just shut it down. Without implying it’s a date request you can just say “I keep my business and personal lives separate so while I’d love to, I can’t.”

    • My initial thought was the same – I didn’t really read it as him asking her out on a date. Just if she wanted to go dancing as they were both interested in dancing. Now, if that makes you uncomfortable on it’s own, that’s totally okay too, but I wouldn’t automatically assume he meant it in the date sense.

      I would change how you react from now on. If you don’t want to go, the next time he asks you can say, “That’s really nice of you to ask, but I am going to pass.” Keep saying no or whatever until it stops and always work to steer the conversation back to something work related.

    • Yes, I had the same reaction–while his last comment is certainly a bit flirtatious, I think it could easily be brushed aside AND still remain friendly. Obviously this could be totally different based on body language and other subtle things that don’t come across in texting, but…are people reading this different because it’s dancing? If she was really into rock climbing and he was like “hey, I love rock climbing too, let’s go sometime!” and she said “Sure!”…? But yes, if you don’t want to dance with him, if there’s weird signals and flirty looks and whatnot, just take it back a notch, and say you’re not dancing much these days, or you’re really busy, or you are working on specific things with specific partners/teachers, or…but especially if this is texted, he may just be trying to awkwardly joke about it and it comes across all wrong.

  8. I am a swing dancer and yes, I had the same thought process. It is my golf, although to date I have never mixed my dancing (or my dating!) with work.

  9. Anonymous :

    He asked you to go dancing. You said yes. If what you meant was no, say that the next time he brings it up!

  10. I’d consider BCC’ing someone in HR on your response – yikes!

  11. Why is a potential client texting her? I never give clients my cell phone number. Ever.

    • OfCounsel :

      It might not be necessary in your industry, but half of my clients and several opposing counsel have my cell phone number because I am frequently out of the office and they sometimes need to contact me on weekends or in the evenings (both for emergencies and because we are in different time zones).

    • Anon Worker Bee :

      I’m an IT consultant and travel a lot for work and some of my clients have my cell phone number so they can reach me when I am traveling. A few of them have sent me texts, like if they were running late for a meeting with me. I have definitely seen an increase in work-related texting in my industry in the last year or two. If OP is a sales rep she might be on the road a lot and then it would make sense for clients to contact her via her cell phone.

    • My cell phone IS my business phone, and that’s pretty common in my industry (professional services). Colleagues text all the time and sometimes clients. Not out of the ordinary at all to me.

    • KateMiddletown :

      THANK YOU. Texting is a very casual and congenial form of communication. I understand the need to be connected and get quick responses as well as provide a low barrier of communication for potential clients, but it’s a slippery slope for me. I would avoid texting with this client any further. Any of the “BCC: HR” advice listed above is impractical for texting. If you want to get under HR’s umbrella, take it to email.

      I’d email with this client next time you follow up. Cut out the possibility of miscommunication or misconstrued jokes by taking the communication into a longer-form and more “official” medium.

  12. BigLaw Associate :

    I am married to someone I met via being their outside counsel.

    But my situation is different than the Reader’s. We were both genuinely interested in each other, of about the same level of seniority and age, and were serious from the get-go. I didn’t think much of it, since i normally communicated with his boss, not him, at the client. But I didn’t end up telling my co-workers until after we got married, i.e. when I changed my last name to his very distinctive last name and could no longer hide it. They didn’t have much to say aside from ‘congrats.’ I wish I would have disclosed sooner.

  13. This is the part that crosses the line from sharing a mutual interest in an activity to inappropriate work flirtation/sexual harassment: ) “sure – maybe after we figure out these projects” to which he replied, “might have to see how good of a dancer you are first.”
    I think though, Reader needs to be direct and not leave any wiggle room. Good luck. Report back after.

  14. Dance enthusiast :

    Dancing is a fun hobby that most people enjoy doing in the company of others who also enjoy doing it – like golf, or basketball, or hiking. He invited you to join him probably because he doesn’t know other people who would be interested in it and was happy to find you. Or he wants to improve his professional relationship with you and thought about doing it through a hobby (again, like with golf). You agreed to it initially, so how does he know that you don’t actually want to join him?

    I like going to dancing with a variety of people, including colleagues. Unfortunately, in my new city/job, I haven’t found anyone who wants to go with me. If a client told me he or she was interested, I would jump on that! Not because I was interested in a personal relationship but because I’m interested in expanding my circle of dance enthusiasts.

    If you don’t want to go with him, tell him. But don’t read anything into what he said. Most of us aren’t that uptight and don’t limit our dancing to romantic interests, just like we don’t limit our other hobbies to them.

    • Hmm.. something related happened to me. I used to work with Mr. X. 3-4 years after I left the company and moved towns, he came to my town and we had lunch together. That was a nice catch-up after a multi-year break. Then, he started texting me about how he was going to be in town for a project and we should have dinner together. I felt weird about this, so I suggested dinner with my husband, I suggested lunch- all were rejected as he was too busy. It had to be dinner and it had to be just me. This process took a few months. My creep-o-meter pegged out. I showed a friend, and my husband (that this guy knew about) and they both agreed.
      I think my point is that if the reader thinks she’s being pursued, then she probably is, regardless of the wording of the text.

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