Coping with the Inappropriate Above the Regulation

“This is Olga. She is the Paris Hilton of Law. “

I was once introduced to an elected government official at an event. Maybe some people would take that as a compliment, but I sure would not. At the time, I was General Counsel of a pre-IPO Series C startup with around 500 employees. My badge clearly indicated this, and I had a track record that backed it up. Paris Hilton has been stereotyped as an exaggerated, larger-than-life celebrity who was “famous for being famous”. Hilton obviously has a lot more depth – when people think of Paris Hilton, they think of her reality show The Simple Life and her catchphrase “That’s hot”.

There is a bigger discussion about how to deal with inappropriate behavior in the workplace. In my situation, I left a very long, uncomfortable pause – and gave the person time to think about what they had just said. I then started a somewhat dramatic conversation about the weather, but not before slipping into a light eye roll.

My immediate reaction was that his comment was inappropriate, but according to one of his coworkers, he actually appreciated me very much and meant it as a compliment. Which leaves us with two problems.

  1. Make unprofessional comments in a professional setting and
  2. A poor understanding of the nature and execution of compliments

The latter is more of a non-issue and is just a matter of knowledge, clarity and practice. For example, if he had said that I am to the legal profession what Paris Hilton is to the influencer industry, then it would have been more obvious what he was trying to communicate.

But the lack of professionalism in supposedly professional environments is shocking. Some studies have shown that more than 50% of women have been harassed in the workplace. This is not about the #MeToo movement. This is how everyone can and should respond to an inappropriate comment.

I posted my Paris Hilton story on my LinkedIn page and made some interesting suggestions on how I should have responded. Someone even suggested I should have responded with Hilton’s catchphrase, “That’s hot.” It may have indicated how childish he was, but I could have come across as childish. In addition, “That’s hot” has flirty connotations, which was the last thing I wanted to communicate at the moment!

Heavy sarcasm could have avoided that, but that makes a bad first impression and to some extent minimizes the problem.

What would I suggest as a solution in retrospect?

I think there are several good approaches. But the most important thing is that you make sure to bring it to their attention and make them think about what they said. Do not let them take pleasure or attention from it.

At that moment, I took the path of silence because it felt like the less uncomfortable option – highlighting her mistake and forcing her to think about it would have felt uncomfortable to me. But I could have asked what he meant. When people use an innuendo, they are made to either look like a fool or to explain what they are suggesting.

At the end of the day, the crux of the matter is that both you and others need to be made aware of the unprofessional behavior, but you don’t need to bow down to their level.

How would you deal with this comment? Please let me know. I would love to hear from you.

Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next generation contract management company that pioneered online negotiation technology. Embracing legal innovation, Olga has dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She believes that with the adoption of technology, the legal profession will emerge stronger, more resilient and more inclusive than before. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup consultant, speaker, associate professor, and entrepreneur. She founded the Women serve on board Movement promoting women’s participation on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. she wrote Get on board: Earn your ticket for a seat on the corporate board and Fundamentals of intelligent contract security. You can follow Olga on Twitter @olgavmack.

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