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Question 117: Should a woman who tried to use sex as a bribe be denied a promotion?

I have over eleven hundred people in my data processing department. Except for Sundays and a few major holidays, we operate twenty-four hours a day. On the night shift, we have nearly three hundred people. The night supervisor will be retiring in about two months, and I will promote one of his three assistants. All of them have been with us five to ten years, and, on paper, all are qualified. Each, of course, has his or her own pluses and minuses, so that, as usual, it does not make sense to say either that they are equally well qualified or that one is absolutely better qualified than the others. It comes down to a judgment call.

Last week our night supervisor was taking a week of the vacation he has coming before he retires. Because this position is so important to our operation, I filled in for him, so as to observe firsthand how the assistants perform, interact with one another, and deal with problems. While I was at it, I also had each of the three in my office for a leisurely, open-ended interview, during which I asked what problems they saw in the night operation as it has been managed up to now, and what they thought could be done to improve it.

All three assistants are white; two are men, the other a woman. My inclination was to promote the woman, since more than three-fourths of the night crew are women. I interviewed the two men first and was better impressed by one of them; he also seemed to me slightly more effective on the floor. Finally, I interviewed the woman, and for nearly an hour it went well. She is not as technically proficient as either of the men, but she seems good at handling the women who work under her, and the interview showed that she has some promising ideas for solving a couple of problems in the night operation. She also was straightforward in underlining her own strengths and saying she is eager for this promotion, and I respected her frankness.

My inclination to promote her had virtually become a decision by the time I stood up to end the interview and show her out. Then, she asked if she might bring up “something personal.” I agreed, and she said that, since both of us have been “celibates” for the past year—around the time my wife died of cancer, this woman was separated from her husband and now has her divorce—she wondered whether I might be ready for some “companionship.” Taken by surprise and wishing to be gentle, I answered honestly that, while I found her appealing and have begun dating, I have been limiting it to widows around my own age. As a Catholic, I explained, I do not believe in remarriage after divorce. She smiled, took my hand in both of hers, pressed up against me, and said that she was not proposing marriage, “only a relationship, since we will be working more closely together when I become night supervisor.” Pretending not to understand, I replied that I had not yet decided whom to promote and quickly showed her out.

Her behavior was so repugnant to me that now I am inclined to promote the better of the two men instead of her. But since she would have got the job if she had not tried to bribe me by using sex, I wonder whether it is fair to make this business decision on the basis of my personal values. Then too, policy requires explaining the decision in a report to the Director of Human Resources. Referring to that incident could invite trouble.


This question calls for the derivation of a norm. The questioner’s narrative makes it clear that the woman offered sexual favors as a bribe. Generally, a person who offers a bribe of any sort to obtain a promotion manifests several character flaws that probably will impede his or her proper and effective exercise of a managerial position’s responsibilities. So, taking the attempted bribe into account in deciding whether to promote the woman would not be making the decision on the basis of “personal values” but using a relevant criterion. If the character flaws exist, the current night supervisor would have observed other behavior manifesting them, and so should be able to verify them. Therefore, unless the questioner has reason to distrust the night supervisor, he should ask him about all three candidates’ character, and take his testimony into account in making the decision.

The reply could be along the following lines:

The timing and specific details of the woman’s words and behavior, assuming you have reported them accurately, leave no room for reasonable doubt that she was offering sexual favors and offering them as a bribe so that you would promote her rather than one of her competitors. Someone might say that, in pretending not to understand, you acted deceptively. Under the circumstances, though, your reaction may well have been a mere expression of shock or embarrassment. Even if intentional, the pretense was ambiguous, and you undoubtedly expected it would serve its purpose even if the woman, not being deceived, correctly understood it as an unqualified rejection of her offer. I see no dishonesty in that pretense.

Your account gives no indication of impropriety on your part that might have evoked the woman’s attempt. Still, she may have suspected you had something in mind other than business in inviting her to your office for a leisurely interview, which took place at night when, presumably, your secretary was not on duty and no one else was likely to interrupt. My first suggestion is that you reflect on your past treatment of female employees in general and this woman in particular to see whether you provided any reasonable ground for her to think you would be susceptible to sexual bribery.326 And examine yourself as carefully as you can to see whether something you imprudently said or did before or during the interview triggered her behavior. If you were at fault, repent and amend your life.

Assuming nothing for which you were responsible occasioned this woman’s behavior, her attempt at bribery was a serious affront to you. But more is at stake than your personal values and honor. Unusual circumstances—desperate need for the means of survival or well-grounded fear for the safety of a loved one—might tempt even a woman of good character to try to bribe someone with sex. Under the circumstances you describe, however, this subordinate’s offer probably manifested the same character defects that one of the men would have manifested had he offered you, say, five thousand dollars.

Under ordinary circumstances, a person who offers any sort of bribe to obtain a promotion shows several things about himself or herself. First, the behavior evidences lack of solidarity with others and a disposition to treat them as mere means instead of cooperating with them as persons who are respected co-workers. Second, it shows lack of integrity, the readiness to violate relevant norms and use bad means. Third, its self-centeredness shows lack of a spirit of fairness toward competitors and lack of commitment to the organization’s common good. Fourth, it indicates lack of appropriate self-confidence and self-respect—personality defects likely to occasion mistreatment of others. A person with such defects of character and personality is ill equipped to supervise the work of nearly three hundred people, which should involve gaining their respect and good will, encouraging their cooperation, and fairly resolving their disagreements and problems. Furthermore, giving a promotion to someone who offered a bribe to obtain it would tend to confirm and reinforce the flaws revealed by the act, with the likely bad result that the person would make a practice of abusing his or her power, thereby injuring both subordinates and the organization as a whole.

If this woman’s character is defective in these ways, that surely will have manifested itself in the years she has worked under the present night supervisor. Unless you have a good reason for distrusting him, I suggest you question him closely, if you have not already, about his three subordinates’ character, without first telling him about the incident. Probably he will provide various examples confirming the character traits manifested by the incident.

If so, you should consider these defects relevant to the question of whether the woman is qualified for the position, and they would show that she is not as well qualified for it as you had thought. On that basis, rather than on the basis of your “personal values,” it would be clear, I think, that you should promote the better-qualified man rather than her.

If the night supervisor’s experience with the woman does not confirm the implications of your experience with her or if for other reasons you decide to promote her, it still would be prudent to forestall any misunderstanding or misrepresentation by mentioning the incident in your report to the Director of Human Resources and explaining why you have decided on the promotion anyway. Then talk frankly with her, explaining how you perceived what she did and warning her to avoid similar behavior in the future. Explain what such behavior usually implies about the character of someone who engages in it, and how unsuitable such traits are in anyone in a supervisory position. Finally, make it clear you hope her performance will show that promoting her was not a mistake.

And if you decide not to promote this woman? I suggest you call her in and—in your secretary’s earshot—confront her about the incident. Tell her frankly that it raised questions about her character, which suggested that she was not qualified for the position. Very likely she will offer some excuse or propose a less damning interpretation of what she did. Without conceding its plausibility, you can tell her that further inquiry prompted by the incident turned up other examples of inappropriate behavior. In discussing them with her, your intention should be to encourage her to reflect on the mistaken beliefs and bad attitudes they reveal, see the point in changing, and do so, at least insofar as her character flaws affect her performance at work and her relationships with others in the department.

Then in your report to the Director of Human Resources, include a summary of what you learned about the woman’s character from the night supervisor, use her attempt at sexual bribery as an example, summarize your conversation with her about the matter, and indicate that, except for her serious character flaws, you would have considered her well qualified and promoted her. Presented in this way, your report not only might forestall questions about your decision but provide a basis for defending yourself, if necessary, against her possible claim that you initiated the personal conversation, made improper demands, and denied her the promotion when she rebuffed you.

326. Andrea P. Baridon and David R. Eyler, Working Together: The New Rules and Realities for Managing Men and Women at Work (New York: McGraw–Hill, 1994), 125–69, propose for men and women who share a workplace a contemporary business etiquette that could serve as a checklist for the questioner.