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Harassment in the Job Interview

Obligatory Tattling

Dear Nan,
You’ll never believe what happened to me today. I went to a job interview and the HR manager hit on me–even asking me for a date! I didn’t act offended–even though I was–because I wanted to get the second interview. I got it–and, consequently, the job! But now my question is: Shall I report his actions or just drop the issue? I don’t want to be considered a troublemaker but, on the other hand, I don’t think he acted professionally. Am I obligated to do anything?

In this day and age, one would think such an incident could not occur in an office setting. Unfortunately, there are still a few ethically impaired managers on the loose.

All office professional today are aware this kind of behavior in a job interview is inappropriate, to say nothing of illegal. You certainly are no exception in recognizing this fact.

At first glance, there appear to be two simple slam-dunk solutions: Exit the interview immediately and never have contact with the company again–or, (as you did), slide through the interview somehow because you want the job.

But is it really that simple? This dilemma causes us to reflect upon the more important and timely issue today: How accountable are we in today’s workplace? Where is our responsibility as a professional in this situation?

This is an “it depends” situation, if there ever was one.

Let’s look at the upsides and downsides of the various ways you could handle the situation.

End the interview process immediately (why would you want to be associated with a company whose HR manager acts so unprofessionally)?

Upside: You’ve walked away with your professional dignity intact. Downside: You may have lost a great job opportunity.

Marie Walkowiak, receptionist/department assistant at BDH & Young Space Design in Edina, Minnesota, puts a different angle to it: Because “this was the first interview, the HR manager may have been testing the qualified applicant to see how she would handle the situation. Keeping immediate attention to what is at hand is much more important than losing control and falling out of place. Being the applicant got the job shows she was able to set aside personal opinions and focus on the bigger picture.”

And, let’s not discount the perception aspect of the issue. There are always two sides to any story. Was the manager really “hitting” on you, or was he just friendly and trying to put you at ease? I suspect you would not have written your letter if you doubted your interpretation of the situation. So, let’s assume this guy is a slimy predator who ought to be stopped before he repeats this scenario with another job applicant. I’m only pointing out the cautions to consider.

Do what you have to do to get to the second interview and report the inappropriate behavior to that person.

Upside: The second interviewer may be most appreciative of your reporting, thank you, and move the interview process forward. Downside: You are not yet an employee, have no established credibility, and thus may be immediately dismissed as a disgruntled job applicant.

Successfully make it to the final interview and the job offer.

Before you accept the offer with your new boss, tell him/her about the incident and then observe his or her reaction. Depending upon his/her reaction, you may choose to accept or not accept the job offer. Upside: If your new boss casually blows off the situation, you know you would not want to work for such an unprofessional company. Downside: Again, you may be suddenly perceived as a troublemaker and the offer to an excellent position may be withdrawn.

And you thought this was a simple dilemma…

Personally, I believe, as a professional, you have an ethical responsibility to assume the accountability of such a situation and take action accordingly. Yes, you can walk away and forget the entire incident. You have no obligation to do anything whatsoever. However, is this the professional response expected in the workplace today?

This company has an employee in a position of authority who is not only acting irresponsibly but leaving the company wide open for a potentially costly harassment lawsuit as well. I believe any reputable organization would want to know it has such a loose cannon in their organization.

“If the HR manager was really hitting on her, then she should collect concrete evidence and bring that to the appropriate authority for further investigation,” Walkowiak adds.

What if you accept the job and, a few months later, you are called in to the president’s office and told confidentially they are investigating the “reported” misbehavior of the HR manager. You are then asked if anything unprofessional occurred during your initial interview with that person. When you reveal your incident, you may be asked why you did not report it at the time. Your professionalism would reflect better if you had taken such action accordingly.

Consider the story of “anonymous in Jacksonville, Florida.” “A year ago, I applied for a position I truly wanted. The human resource interviewer asked me several inappropriate questions. I muddled through the interview, left, and immediately decided I wanted nothing more to do with such an unprofessional organization (although the job description was exactly what I was seeking). I decided to take no action and dropped the entire matter. But, I did tell my roommate and my mother about it that evening. Both of them were as outraged as I was about this individual’s behavior.

“My roommate is a media buyer and one of her clients is that particular company. Unbeknownst to me, she visited her client (the general manager) the next day and reported my incident to him. Nothing more occurred. Three months later, the general manager called and invited me to another interview, this time with him. He apologized profusely for the inappropriate behavior of my interviewer, said he had since been fired, and offered me the job. I am now happily ensconced in my new position, and I have my roommate to thank for following up for me.”

This happy ending would not have occurred if someone hadn’t taken action.

All things considered, I suggest the following solution to your dilemma:

You can be proud that you acted professionally in your interview with this manager. You have nothing to apologize or be embarrassed about. Now that you have the job, however, you must take professional action accordingly.

Obviously, you should document your initial conversation with the HR manager and any ensuing conversations (if inappropriate) with him, and keep that document in your personal file. Then, watch and wait an appropriate amount of time. (You’ll be able to determine this.) You need to (1) establish your own credibility as a responsible employee and (2) determine within the organization the appropriate individual to approach.

Then, request a confidential meeting with the individual you have identified (e.g. HR director, vice president, president/CEO) and report your concerns, and back them up with proper documentation and a statement that you will keep (and have kept) the situation confidential. (You can easily defend, if necessary, your delay in taking action by stating Nos. 1 and 2 above.) Now is a great time to acknowledge your role as a professional and the accountability you feel toward the company’s welfare and individuals involved.

U.S. President Bush recently stated in his address to Wall Street, “The ethics of business today depend upon the conscience of its leaders… and the accountability of its employees.” Administrative professionals today have high standards of personal accountability that deserve the trust and respect of others. There may have been a time when the above interview incident might have caused us to say “What’s wrong with this picture?” And even today we are seduced, from time to time, by a culture of short cuts, fictions, and misbehavior that erode the ethical office. The culture of the unethical office is promoted by unethical employees, but it cannot be sustained if ethical employees step up the plate and halt the mischief.

Now is the time for us to be our best professional selves. Now is the time for us to be sure we are on the side of the angels.

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars