My wife, Mimi, had been in communication with a recruiter for some job up in Connecticut, and the topic of salary came up. She was countering his offer with a request for a higher wage, because after all, as she put it, ‘a girl’s gotta eat’.
His response was a picture of a half-naked anorexic girl – anorexic to the point where her abdomen was hideously deformed and the contour of her organs were visible. He apparently thought this was funny.
After she finished her immediate reaction (shock and horror, to be precise), she called the company’s front desk to get to HR. It was shortly after 5PM, however, so they were closed. She replied to the email he sent with a request to have his supervisor call or email.
Within moments, her phone rang. It was the person who had sent the email, trying to talk her out of getting him in trouble because hey, it was just a joke, right?
I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it must have been good, because Mimi decided to leave it at that provided he didn’t contact her anymore. She also commented that she was no longer interested in the position, as if that were not obvious enough.
What sort of person thinks sending an image like that in professional communication is acceptable in any way? Unfortunately, this happens all the time: Far more often than any statistics will tell you, women and minorities are harassed, marginalized, and oppressed in ‘professional’ environments all over the place. Let’s analyze the event and really see what it COMMUNICATES from a psychological perspective.
The context of the event is a discussion of salary for a potential new job. The recruiter has made a salary offer, the potential employee is countering with a request for a slightly higher salary, with the lighthearted comment ‘A girl’s gotta eat’. The recruiter responds, agreeing to the higher salary, attaching the aforementioned image. The image is not referenced in the body of the email. The potential employee responds, asking what the image was about, and he replied "You said a girl’s gotta eat, the one below doesn’t look she has to eat" [sic] . One assumes he meant to say that the girl did not look like she had to eat.
At best, at absolute best, he is being sarcastic and was trying to indicate that she would not starve on the wage. However, even if we assume the best, we are still faced with the fact that we are dealing with a person who thinks that a crippling disorder is funny. We are still faced with someone who looks at the plight of young girls driven to mental illness by the culture of misogyny, whose illness manifests in literally starving themselves to death for fear of being fat and therefore ‘unpersoned’ by our culture – a person who looks at that and finds it amusing, and sees nothing wrong with referencing that in professional communication with a woman.
I want to be clear here that there is nothing wrong with having a peculiar sense of humor – myself, I have a very dark sense of humor. I laugh at things that many people find broadly offensive, and that’s fine, because I am not forcing my idea of what’s funny on people in a professional environment. There is a certain level of etiquette that is expected in the workplace – and discussing the particulars of a potential job with a recruiter counts as ‘the workplace’ – that is expected to be followed. This isn’t even merely an issue of politesse, this is federal law.
Furthermore, the fact that the recruiter called her directly instead of putting her in touch with his supervisor is also questionable – when a line has been crossed like that, you forfeit your right to make it better on your own. When you are the problem, and have offended someone that profoundly, you must not make it worse by inflicting yourself on them any longer. Even if you suddenly understand your offense, and are granted a moment of clarity so you are certain you will not be offensive again, your mere presence in the conversation can be seen as oppressive or offensive by the person you offended. If I punch you in the face, and then tell you that I’m very sorry and promise not to do it again, you’re still going to be paying more attention to what I am doing with my hands than what I am saying with my mouth. So it is with offensive communication: If I confront you with an offensive image, and then apologize for it, you’re going to be thinking more about the offense I committed than what I am saying.
As it stands, Mimi is no longer considering employment with that firm. If she had been put in touch with the supervisor as she requested, the recruiter would definitely have been called onto the carpet for his actions, sure. But having a third party to discuss her concerns with may have allowed Mimi to regain some comfort, and not only soothed the damage, but also saved the business deal. For the recruiter to smooth things over himself saved his own skin, but sacrificed the business deal. It also subconsciously reinforces to the recruiter that his actions were acceptable, and that Mimi overreacted. Because after all, if he talked her down, that means everything’s okay, right? Perhaps getting disciplined by his human resources department – or undergoing mandatory sexual harassment sensitivity training – would have given the recruiter a much needed wake up call, and forced him to reconsider such actions in the future. I guess we’ll never know.
This isn’t the first or even the hundredth time I’ve been shown evidence that professional courtesy is anything but, but the sheer audacity of it was surprising. I can only hope the recruiter had simply started drinking a little early, and this was a result of temporarily impaired judgment instead of chronically impaired judgment.
It’s pretty sad when your best case scenario involves likely alcoholism.