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As an Account Executive/Recruiter, my job requires frequent travel to industry conferences.
Our most recent company trip was to New Orleans, and as I was cautiously optimistic that it might be a fun week and a respite from long days in the office. Free trip to the Big Easy! Beignets, delicious syrupy rum drinks, jazz music and a rich cultural history! What could go wrong? Well, I could end up between the breasts of a stripper at my boss’ insistence, for one.
Some companies have a “work hard/play hard" philosophy; however the one I work for is more like “work hard/eat a ton/drink a ton.” I have been with this company for the past several years, and at first found the extravagant dinners, late nights of drinking, and conference trips to fun cities such as New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco to be an exciting perk of what can be an otherwise thankless job.
However, once I began to take account of the lavish waste, the greed, the excess, and the inequities between employee and boss, the novelty quickly wore off quickly. The “perks” began to feel more like a punishment than a privilege.
Meals with co-workers and the bosses are mandatory on these multi-day trips, and my boss orders for the table, sometimes spending hundreds of dollars on food that goes uneaten. It turns my stomach to watch, yet I feel like I can’t say anything for fear of gaining disfavor and eventually losing my job. I slap a smile on and do my part to clean the plates, squirming in my seat as the waitstaff fills the table with unnecessary amounts of expensive food and overpriced drinks.
In addition to the ethical quandaries, these trips cause physical and emotional strain as the “top” salespeople are expected to be available to eat, drink and entertain the bosses all night, yet be ready to stand around under fluorescent lights schmoozing potential customers on a concrete floor the next morning.
I have stayed out until the wee hours on many trips only to get up, put on a suit and heels and hit the Conference Room floor at 7:30 AM the next morning (or the same morning, in some cases). I have shown up to our company’s conference booth with last night’s eye makeup on more times than I care to admit, bee-lining for the coffee table as soon as I can sneak away. This goes on 24/7 until it is time to drag our bloated, dehydrated, depressed and tired-as-hell selves onto our departing flights.
As the youngest “team” member, I am expected not only to eat and drink what is put in front of me but am also strongly encouraged to act outlandishly for everyone else’s entertainment. Make out with a random guy at the San Francisco W Hotel? Sure, Grace will do it! Hooking up with co-workers at the annual Christmas party is encouraged. I’m pretty sure the company continues to pony up for the open bar just to have something to gossip about during the cold winter months. To refuse a meal, a drink or pretty much anything is taken as an insult and an act of rebellion.
Why don’t I say thanks, but no thanks, hightail it to my hotel room for a goodnight’s sleep? If only it were that easy. I am fortunate to earn a good salary in tough economic times and to piss these people off would be career suicide in the very specific track I am on.
My feelings about these trips, and the company itself, are obviously conflicted. I try to enjoy the experiences for what they are, be grateful for new opportunities, and focus on producing quality work. When so many others are struggling to make ends meet or out of work completely, it seems ridiculous to complain that my boss orders too much food at dinner, or wants us to stay out drinking (on his dime) for too many hours.
And to be honest, sometimes it is fun to blow off a little steam at places I would never waste my own hard-earned cash on. This all changed during a nauseating night out in New Orleans, and has me desperately looking for a graceful way to exit.
The drinks flowed our first night in New Orleans, and my ever-generous bosses took us to Bourbon Street to get an eyeful of the action. I was a bit shocked at the number of strip clubs and people parading down the street with goblets of liquor, but overall was having a good old-fashioned booze-fueled time. The group broke apart as the night wore on, and my boss, two female co-workers and I began to make our way back to the hotel. My male boss, who is married with two kids, insisted that we “stop in” to a strip club on the way home.
We sat in front of the pole dancers, and when the first girl came out wearing only a G-string, I froze up. Not sure if it was my prudish New England upbringing coming back to haunt me, or just a general sense of distaste as I was here with my employer, after all. I was stuffed to the gills with food and alcohol, at a strip club surrounded by co-workers who I see daily in a professional setting and (to put it mildly) completely freaked out. My boss whipped out a wad of singles, and put them in front of each of us.
“I’m good, I’ll just watch,” I insisted with as much cheer as I could muster.
Nope, that was not an appropriate answer. My boss put the singles in my hand, and seconds later my face was ensconced between two giant breasts. The stone-faced stripper grabbed my head, gave it a good shake, and then moved on down the line. While I am sure her breasts were lovely, I was too shocked to react appropriately and get the hell out there, and thus sat like a robot while this scene played on repeat with several more rounds of dancers. My boss even put his arm around me during the action, saying, “Wow, this is an H.R. nightmare!”
I was finally, mercifully allowed to go back to my hotel room, and lay in bed sleeplessly, feeling sick and angry. The next morning, everyone acted like nothing had happened, and we went about our business -- that’s just how this work is. Since then, I have been looking at other jobs. While a career in writing is a long ways away, I am exploring other options and hoping to be free of this toxic environment sooner than later.
I have lost all respect for my bosses, and some for myself. Some of my friends (mostly male) think this experience sounds like great fun, and others (mostly female) are horrified.
While a pair of boobs in your face isn’t the worst that could happen within the working world, it was the lack of consent, the fact that I said, “No, thank you,” and the flagrant abuse of power that bothers me. The only comment that my boss made the next day regarding the outing was, “I don’t know what turned me on more, watching the dancers or watching you with them.” Barf.
Since then, I have been questioning myself, and my moral compass.
- Is motor-boating a bunch of strippers for my boss’s enjoyment as sleazy as sleeping my way to the top?
- Am I selling myself, my body, without even intending to -- under the guise of professional advancement?
- Do I wish I had told my boss that he was completely out of line, and he can motorboat all he wants but to leave me out of it -- at the risk of losing my job or at the very least being treated like a pariah for ruining the “fun”?
I don’t have good answers for Questions 1 and 2, but in retrospect I wish I had put my foot down and told him how uncomfortable I felt and that I would like to be left out of any further strip club escapades.
It seems too late to bring up now, but I do know for certain that I won’t be agreeing to any more company trips.