A woman I'll call Carrie was a young, successful sales rep for a major pharmaceutical company. Her star was rising rapidly and she spent about four days a week on the road with her regional sales manager and his technical adviser. Both were men. Both liked to end a long day in the hotel lounge over drinks.
"I knew that joining him and his buddy in the lounge would be smart for my career," Carrie told me. "But I was uncomfortable, and my husband was uncomfortable too."
Right here hit pause. Note to my readers: As I set up this very common situation, I do not place the onus of moral behavior on the woman alone. Hardly is it Carrie's job to carry the banner of right and wrong, to see that "nothing happens." My message to men would consume another column. But in writing to women, as I do here at Her.meneutics, I stay aware of what my sisters and I can't control—other people, many circumstances—and what we can: ourselves.
To both sexes, and with national headlines ringing in my head, I open with the obvious reminder that marginal situations can sideline the best reputations and highest careers. I leave it to columnists and commentators to debate FBI procedures and online missteps. As I write to Christian women in a professional climb across the United States, our question is more immediate and practical: How do we contribute to healthy, strategic work with men so that we advance our careers without risking right relationships—or the good work we may be doing?
At the risk of sounding idealistic, even trite, my first counsel is that the path that winds through work that is both personable and professional begins in God's presence. No shortcuts. Our daily steps find surer footing as we stay in communion him and with other believers.
And by other believers, I particularly mean our sisters—ideally a safe circle of real women dispensing candor and accountability. Women able to hold us up and, as needed, hold our feet to the fire. For life's many gray areas, a woman in the working world needs both community and seasoned counsel. And did I mention commonsense? To that end, following is some basic and practical input from the executive sisterhood, much of it about that smoky-gray area after hours and our time with colleagues away from the office. (Final note: This advice also applies fully to men.)
Number one: Keep your control. Pounding shots in a hotel bar, to date, has sharpened no one's decision-making. What's more, any friend nudging you to "keep up with the gang" is not your friend. And if you order a soda or tea and someone gives you grief, find someone else to talk to. Too much to drink, for anyone, is a cheap ticket to skewed thinking; add the opposite sex and that off-campus feeling of a road trip, and you multiply the odds of words or actions you'll regret more than you can imagine (Eph. 5:18).
Be among the first to leave. Business-related late-night soirees commonly start with a large group and dwindle as the night wanes. At these gatherings, face time with colleagues can help build team spirit, and, as we know, the camaraderie is fun. The counsel isn't to boycott these mixers but to know when to leave. The first person getting up to head out typically is my cue to toss out my own goodnight and head back to my room. As a rule, I'm there by 10 p.m.
Dress appropriately. After a day of negotiating airports, meetings, traffic, and deals, it's normal to want to get into something comfortable and kick back. Comfortable is good; revealing sends a non-professional message. The businessmen I respect tell me that women who parade their stuff are taken less seriously.
Maintain boundaries. As appropriate, let your associates know the essentials. If you're married or have children, mention your family. Ask the men in your group about their families. If you're single and a man seems headed in an undesirable direction, a few words pleasantly delivered can help him reroute: "How well do you know Jim, our VP of human resources?"
Stay aware. A lot of women—yes, this will sound gender-biased—tend to speak with their hands. When I'm talking with friends, it's not unusual for me to touch a shoulder or reach out and lightly grab an arm. Be circumspect on the job or after hours.
Mind the grapevine. I'm no fan of office gossip, but a person can collect useful intelligence from water-cooler conversations and Monday weekend wrap-ups. Learn who the players are—the men and women known for flirting or hard partying. If you find yourself on the road with a rounder, keep your distance. Gossip can be inaccurate, but reputations are earned, and you're wise to know the human thin ice. The point isn't to judge others but to exercise good judgment.
Be professional after hours. Whether joining colleagues for dinner or traveling on your company's dime, keep professional relations professional. If the conversation turns unwisely personal, steer it back. Most extra-office liaisons begin innocently, as people drop their guard and share intimate details. When it comes to needless disclosure, just say no.
Life is relational; it's a fact. Another fact is that men and women are made for community, for doing more, faster, better through shared gifts and teamwork. I can hand you studies showing that corporate boards with at least three women perform better. So a few sad headlines and flashing red lights should not deter women from strategic friendships that can help grow their careers. This leads us into the positive side of male-female relations on the job—not men just as co-workers but as mentors and even sponsors (an important distinction).
But in a world with blurred boundaries and confused messages about sex, we women are wise to examine and control our on-the-job behavior. Down the road, we'll have ourselves—and the nudging of the Holy Spirit—to thank.
Diane Paddison is chief strategy officer of Cassidy Turley real estate, author of Work, Love, Pray: Practical Wisdom for Young Professional Christian Women (Zondervan), and founder of 4wordwomen.org.