african american business people handshake

Let’s call him Mr. Bad Intentions. “B.I.” and I met through a business colleague in France. He immediately began telling me about various projects my company could help him with, such as connecting his foreign government contacts with high-level government contacts in the U.S. He traveled to the U.S. often, and contacted me on his next visit to D.C. He said he had a project he wanted to discuss with me, and suggested we meet. We met at my office, and had a productive meeting about what sounded like a potentially substantial contract with a foreign government he was working with.

The following day, he called and asked me to meet him at his hotel to discuss the deal further over dinner. I arrived at his hotel and we went nearby to eat. Afterward, at 9 p.m., B.I. asked me up to his hotel room for coffee. I smiled politely and said, “Sorry, but I have to work with my client in China tonight (9 p.m. U.S. time is 9 a.m. in China). He rolled his eyes, and said “Okay,” in a begrudging tone. I did not hear back from him again regarding the business deal, but a few months later, he called and said he had another potential project and asked me to send a proposal urgently. I did so. He then called to say he would be back in D.C. soon, and that we should be able to finalize the deal when he was in town.

When he returned, he again asked me to meet him at his hotel. This time, I suggested we meet at my office again. He said he couldn’t make it, and each day for three days, he called, asking me to meet him at his hotel instead. I declined each time, and had my assistant provide various available times to him for us to meet at my office. An appointment was booked at my office, but he never showed up. The next time he called, he said that since I had not been available to meet with him in D.C., we couldn't finalize the deal. I’ve not heard from him since, and although his name and company remains on our mass distribution list of business contacts, I have not reached out to him again. I’ve accepted what appears to be pretty obvious: Unless he gets what he wants, I won’t be getting the business I want. And that's not okay.

Why should women have to tell potential male clients that their bodies are not benefits that come with a business contract?

Over the years, I’ve been inundated with men who assume that if they dangle a carrot of potential business in your face, I’ll do whatever it takes to close the deal – including sleeping with them. These men have varied in degrees of boldness in their approaches, and some really stupid ones have even put their propositions in writing. Some of them have backed off when they saw they were getting nowhere with their sexual advances, and returned the discussion to professional matters, awarding partnerships on the merits they deserve. Others, like B.I., have withdrawn their business offers when they realized they would not receive the ‘perks’ they had hoped for.

This harassment has taught me that both men and women need to remain aware of this sickening issue that is so demeaning and disrespectful to women operating in the business world. These kinds of expectations of women are beyond unprofessional, they are hurtful and unacceptable.

Here are 5 tips for Fearless Living to keep your business interactions strictly business, in a world where the personal and professional often mix.

1. Choose a Proper Meeting Venue:  Never meet with a business associate in a hotel room alone to discuss business. Instead, meet in your office or the associate’s, or in a public place, such as a restaurant, preferably for lunch rather than dinner. Dinners can pose problems since alcohol may be served as a part of the dinner, encouraging flexible conversations that can spill over into unprofessional territory. 

2. Plan Small Talk:  Many business meetings held over lunch start with small talk. Prepare in advance what you want to casually discuss and avoid topics that could cause the associate to become offended. Pay attention to how the associate is responding to the things you are saying and if they appear or sound uncomfortable, back off, apologize if necessary, and guide the conversation back to the business at hand.

3. Keep Compliments Professional: In business it can be a great ice breaker to pay genuine compliments to potential business partners, such as commenting positively on the color of their dress or tie. However, know that over-complimenting people, particularly on their appearance—whether by tone of voice or within the context of a lingering gaze or offensive gesture—can lead to a person feeling uncomfortable or even insulted. Commenting on a person’s body parts, shape or level of "sexiness" are always beyond the realm of professionalism, whereas, a simple, “You look very nice today,” is more appropriate and less likely to cause offense. But when in doubt about how a person may receive comments—even ones that you consider to be compliments—keep them to yourself. And if a person expresses discomfort with what you’ve viewed as a compliment, apologize profusely and never offer that kind of feedback in a professional setting again.

4. Get Your Own Transportation: When meeting one-on-one or traveling with a business associate, plan your own transportation from meetings and special events back to the place where you’re staying, especially in foreign countries where you may not be as familiar with the lay of the land. While it may be inconvenient to travel solo, the less time you have to spend alone with an associate outside of professional spaces, the less opportunities there are for the lines of professionalism to blur into an inappropriate situation.

5. Report Sexual Harassment: If you are experiencing the unwanted attention of a co-worker, boss or business associate, or you witness sexual harassment against another person, report it in detail (with descriptions of times, dates, quotes and gestures that occurred) to your H.R. department, if you work in the same environment, and the harasser's H.R. department, as well, if you do not. If you are also concerned about your safety, file a detailed police report against the harasser and get a restraining order. You can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE for support.

You should never have to suffer through sexual jokes or comments. Some may discourage you from reporting the offenses, saying, "That's just the way it is in the business world!" But that is unacceptable. Your body is never a part of the deal and being a "team player" should never cost you your peace or your safety. 

Until next time:

“May the curiosity of life keep you aware,

The power of love push you forward,

And may the love of life,

Keep you living fearlessly!”

– Julia

Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications, an international public affairs consulting firm founded in South Africa in 1994 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. A U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer. Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in more than 13 countries. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaWilson_dc.