Keep Sex Out of Sponsorship

Man and woman chatting over a cup of coffee inside a cafe or restaurantPresume innocence and take these 14 precautionary steps.

By Ida O. Abbott
Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know

If you are concerned about the possibility of sex-related problems, consider the degree of risk involved and whether you are willing to assume it.

MORE ON SPONSORING WOMEN FOR LEADERSHIP: Image Often Carries ‘Double Bind’ Baggage  | Sponsorship Best Practices, Early and Ongoing | 3 Ways to Wreck a Woman’s Career | 4 Reasons Women Say No to Leadership | Fix Gender Bias at Your Firm | Sponsor or Mentor? | Being the Best Means Including Women
GoProCPA.comExclusively for PRO Members. Log in here or upgrade to PRO today.

Before you decide, consider

  • first that you might be exaggerating the risk and
  • second, that this is a risk that can be prevented and managed.

Some men use these concerns as rationalizations to avoid sponsoring women for other reasons. Don’t be one of them.

Here are some suggestions to prevent sexual entanglements, rumors, spousal jealousy and allegations of harassment:

  1. Act professionally at all times.
  2. Avoid or limit alcohol when you and your protégée are together.
  3. Set boundaries, either explicitly or through your actions. Consider it your “personal code of behavior.” Make it known that you have a policy not to date coworkers. Clear boundaries are important whether you and your protégée are married or single.
  4. If you are unsure about her boundaries, ask her. Emphasize that you do not want her to feel uncomfortable around you. Urge her to let you know if you ever do anything that makes her uncomfortable so that you can stop doing it.
  5. Honor your protégée’s boundaries (e.g., if she has a “no-hugs” policy).
  6. Avoid stories or jokes about sexual topics or that have sexual overtones.
  7. Do not assume your protégée finds you sexually attractive. If you are attracted to her, do not assume the feeling is mutual.
  8. Exercise self-control. One or both of you may, in fact, be attracted to the other. Temptation is powerful and very human, but it can be resisted.
  9. Apply a presumption of innocence. Assume that whatever your protégée tells you, including information about her personal life, is within your relationship as professional colleagues and friends, nothing more.
  10. When discussing personal matters, curtail conversations that start to stray into topics that may become sexually charged. Topics that seem innocent and natural between friends, such as complaints about your spouse or hers, can lead to unexpected entanglements between professional colleagues. Talking about being lonely, unhappy or needing comfort may inadvertently lead to physical intimacy. If the discussion is necessary (e.g., one of you is going through a divorce that is affecting your work or concentration), tread carefully.
  11. Spend your time together in public places and during the day. Unless an evening or weekend meeting is necessary, meet during breakfast, lunch or breaks during the workday.
  12. When you need a private place to talk, opt for offices, conference rooms, restaurants or other venues where you can be seen but not heard.
  13. Participate together in office, professional, civic, cultural and athletic activities that give you a chance to connect on a personal level but where safe boundaries can be maintained.
  14. Introduce your protégée to your wife. Encourage them to get to know each other. Invite the protégée and her husband or partner to your home or a restaurant for dinner so both spouses can get acquainted and witness the professionalism of your relationship. Use firm social events as opportunities for all of you to spend time together. If either or both of you have young children, include them in some activities.

Some men have wives who get jealous or resentful when their husbands sponsor young women. If you have a strong marriage and a secure wife, explain your sponsorship intentions to her so that she understands and accepts the situation. If you have a shaky marriage or an insecure wife, the problem is harder to deal with, and it may be intractable if your wife’s suspicions are because you have had affairs or given her reason to be jealous in the past. Your wife’s personal problems and your need to repair relations with her have to be addressed, perhaps through counseling, but that is outside the scope of this book.

As a sponsor, you need to be aware of how your personal problems may interfere with your professional responsibilities and deal with them as best you can. What you should not do is run away from those problems by limiting your sponsorship to men. That would be a violation of your obligation as a leader to ensure that your firm has the best talent in place to guide and ensure its success.

Women also refrain from seeking male sponsors for the same reasons.

It is also important to recognize that you are not alone in your concern about sponsorship with the opposite sex. Women

  • are more comfortable with women mentors and sponsors,
  • are afraid of becoming the subject of scandal or salacious rumors, and
  • have husbands and partners who may become jealous of the attentions of an older successful man.

If your protégée is married or has a partner, acknowledge his role in promoting her success. Let her know that you consider him a partner in your effort to help her advance because his support for her is essential to that endeavor. When appropriate, for example, if she receives a promotion or award, contact him and recognize both her accomplishments and his support for her.

If you sense that your protégée has any concerns or problems because of your sponsorship, ask her about it. Tell her you are willing to address them. If she declines, respect her choice but let her know you will remain open to talking about it at a later date. If she does present any sex-related issues, deal with them directly and honestly, and try to work out an arrangement that will make her feel safe.