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Is My Client Coming On to Me?
Q: I have a pet-walking and -sitting business. I'm a single parent and that's how I pay the bills. And I have this one client, "Jim." I walk his dog three times a day, and often take care of her on weekends and overnight when Jim travels for work. Our relationship had been fine -- until recently.
Lately Jim has been waiting for me whenever I come over to walk his dog. When he opens the door he puts his hand on my back and tells me he's real glad to see me. He tells me how pretty I look. And then he'll stare at me and smile in a very unsettling way.
At first I was flattered -- as a single parent, it's been a while since I've had this kind of attention. And I have to admit, he's kind of cute. But now I'm getting worried. Usually we're alone in the house, so that kind of scares me.
I'm afraid of talking to Jim about it. What if he fires me? I don't know how I'd pay the bills. What do you think? Is this sexual harassment? Am I overreacting?
-- Creeped out in Secaucus
A: If you're concerned enough to be writing to me about it, you're not overreacting. Women often have a finely tuned sense of intuition, and you're probably reading Jim's attraction to you correctly. You've got some decisions to make.
If you worked for a company, you might march down to the Human Resources Department to file a grievance. As an IP, you are the HR Director!
Here are some questions that you -- or any IP who is concerned with sexual harassment issues -- must answer.
1) Are your client's advances unwelcome? If so, does he know that?
Of course, this question may cause you to scream: "OF COURSE THEY'RE UNWELCOME! WHAT DO YOU THINK I'M COMPLAINING ABOUT?" But that doesn't mean hooey if Jim's under the mistaken impression that you're interested. Is the threat of losing his income leading you to send mixed messages? Maybe your fear of offending him looks like romantic curiosity.
Be honest with yourself. You said his advances felt kind of good at first, and that he's "kind of cute." Are you sure that you aren't interested in him? If you aren't sure, you can bet that he isn't, either. Figure out how you feel ASAP.
2) Is his behavior simply annoying, or dangerous?
You need to assess the nature of Jim's behavior. Really think about what he's doing, about the actual threat he poses. If you don't think Jim's a real threat, you need to talk to him -- and fast. (See Question 4.)
If, after considering the situation you still feel threatened, you need to take action.
Don't hold on to any client who makes you feel physically unsafe, no matter what. It's not worth it. Your safety must always be protected, and you are its only protector!
In your line of work, you'll sometimes be alone with a client in an unguarded area. It's unavoidable. But there are steps you can take to help minimize the risk. Take a self-defense course. Carry pepper spray with you and have it easily accessible when you walk those doggies. Make sure someone else knows your schedule, when and where you are working. (If you feel really threatened, tell your client that you've given his contact information to a friend or relative.)
3) Are you tolerating unacceptable behavior because you are scared of losing the income?
If you conclude that Jim is a creep, don't continue to work for him out of fear of losing his business. Pick your self-esteem up off the floor and tell him to walk his own dog. You can use the time you gave to Jim to hunt down another client or two. There are a lot of lonely dogs in the world that need your assistance.
Remember what it means to be an IP: you get to choose who you work with. Don't work for a jerk just so you can pay the electric bill.
4) Have you tried to resolve this situation, rather than just running from it?
I know you're scared, but you've got to talk to this guy. You're single, attractive to him, loyal -- he has every reason to be interested in you as more than a pooch-sitter.
If the attraction is mutual, tell him that you're uncomfortable mixing business with pleasure, but that you sense that he's interested in you as more than a dog-walker. If the two of you do decide to get together, and things don't work out, you're probably out the weekly income he was providing. But what the heck, good men are hard to find. So, if he's a good one, open up to it a bit more. You already like his dog, right?
And if what I've just suggested turns your stomach, here's what you could do:
The next time he does something with his hands that makes you uncomfortable, calmly move away and say, "I prefer not to be touched by my clients, unless they have four legs!" Let him know how you feel with a bit of humor.
If he reacts respectfully and backs off, or even apologizes, you may be able to hold on to his account. Maybe he was testing your interest, and he just needed to know where you stood. If he acts like a jerk, or apologizes and then does it again the next time, give him your notice.
The point? You can't expect your client to be a mind reader. Be clear about your expectations and intentions and make sure your client does the same. That advice goes for all client-relationship concerns, not just sexual harassment.
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