You can't be too careful what you say at work


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:23 a.m.
Q:I had been a district manager for my previous employer for six years. During a visit to one of the company locations, I asked a female employee where she had purchased a particular article of clothing that she was wearing, and what style was the item. I explained that I was interested in what she was wearing as a Christmas gift for my wife.
About two weeks later, I was called in to our human resources office and asked about that conversation and the questions that I asked. I was told that the employee's husband had complained, and I was subsequently put on administrative leave until this could be resolved to limit my company's liability.
The following Monday I was terminated. Human resources told me that this was not harassment or sexual harassment, but it was being termed ''inappropriate comments.''
Hindsight being 20/20, I know I shouldn't have asked a complete stranger any questions regarding her clothing, but my intentions were completely innocent, and now I'm at a loss for an explanation for prospective employers. Can you help?
A:Stick with the truth, clearly, simply and as briefly as possible. You made a mistake asking the wrong question of the wrong employee, and I'm sure you'll never do that again. My question is: Have you ever done it before?
Most companies that I have interviewed view this type of situation very seriously, and have policies for termination after the second complaint. In most cases, the first complaint is followed by counseling and a stern warning of what will happen next. The next complaint is followed by termination.
Of course policies can be different in different companies, but the message is clear. Be very careful what you say or ask other employees. The liability to employers is very high, so the act has to be met with swift, and very often, definitive action.
Look deeply into your personal mirror. Be as objective as possible. Be honest with yourself. Make corrections and move on, but the plain old truth, clearly and briefly, is usually the best way to offset any negative in your past.
Use your past to strengthen your future.
Marvin Walberg is a job search consultant based in Birmingham, Ala.

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