My boss and his girlfriend are sexually harassing staff. What do I do?

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week, dealing with inappropriate behaviour, being ghosted by prospective employers and reentering the workforce after a mental health break.

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I am the HR manager in a small business and report to the founder and owner, who still runs the business day to day. His current girlfriend also works in the business, and I have had other female employees complain to me that his girlfriend has been asking if they might like to join them after hours for what seems clearly sexual activities. The women have felt uncomfortable and have not known how to handle the situation given he is the boss, and the girlfriend is a colleague. What do you suggest?

The situation you describe is a nightmare of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment on multiple levels. Your boss sounds like he needs to learn how to separate his private life and activities from his professional work.

As you are HR manager, I’d recommend you get some legal advice to understand the clear obligations that now come into play with allegations of this nature. You might need to seek that advice without the involvement of the founder, if possible, given the allegations directly relate to him. You will be acting in the interests of the company, and it will allow you to get advice on how to set up any investigation or inquiry that needs to happen. You may also need to undertake a culture review to get to the bottom of any other inappropriate behaviour so that it can be stamped out. As you know, culture is set from the top and if this is the kind of behaviour the founder is participating in, you may also have other issues to deal with. This is bound to be a tricky time for you so be sure to get the support you need as well.

Over the years I have applied for numerous jobs with a state government department. I have three degrees, two of which are relevant to roles I apply for. I have been to interview after interview, sat workplace assessments and interviewed for temporary positions through recruitment agents. They often seem keen at the time but then I hear nothing, and they don’t provide any feedback. Return addresses to contact hiring managers are usually incorrect. I’m frustrated and demoralised as I feel I am not reaching my potential. What advice do you recommend?

As you have identified, it sounds like something is not working in your approach and I wonder whether getting some professional, personalised support could help. Have you ever approached a career counsellor or recruitment specialist and engaged them to provide candid feedback on your interview technique? It sounds like your resume is getting you through the first hurdle but then in the interview something doesn’t quite connect. A professional who can coach you through that may be able to help and build your confidence as you apply for the next role.

Until recently, I worked in media for an egomaniac who was a bully and terrible manager. I lost a lot of weight and never experienced stress like it. I took up workers compensation and resigned, but I think I’m now ready to return to the workforce. I’m on medication and better than I was but the thought of working again is terrifying. I’m still receiving psychological help and I’m not sure whether to mention my mental health issues. Is now a good time to be leaving the “comfort” of workers compensation or should I ride out the storm? Has this incident done irreparable damage to my career after more than 12 months out of work?

It sounds like you are feeling tentative about whether you’re ready to reenter the workforce after all you have been through. The good news is that job ads are soaring so it may be a very good time to start looking for your new role. Only you can judge whether you are ready to go back to work but there is no doubt that caring for your own mental health needs to be a priority. I don’t think you have done irreparable damage to your career having had 12 months off. Plenty of people take career breaks and it’s especially common with the pandemic-driven Great Resignation.

In any interview you might be asked about the gap in your CV and why you left your last role, so have a think about how you feel most comfortable answering that beforehand. Generally speaking, talking about a former employer in negative terms (regardless of how terrible they were) is not a good idea so try to soften your tone with this. Perhaps refer to wide-ranging job cuts that occurred in your sector during the period.

As for whether you should mention your recent mental health challenges, if you don’t think it will impact your ability to take on the new role I’d suggest waiting until you have secured the job. Once you have built a foundation of trust, the conversation about mental health will be a lot easier. However, if you think it will be helpful for your recovery to make a hirer aware of the support structures you need, you should raise it with them. The level of support they offer you (or don’t) will make clear if they’re the kind of employer you want to work with.

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to [email protected] Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is an award-winning leader, executive coach and public speaker. Her upcoming book Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership will be published by Penguin Random House.

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