A Sexist Colleague Wants My Help Networking. Can I Say No?

I was recently recruited to another company for a better opportunity. A partner at my former firm offered to meet me near my new job and take me to lunch as a token of gratitude for my work there; he also wanted my headhunter contacts, as he’s looking to make a move himself. While we were eating, I mentioned that most of my new team, including my boss, are women, and that both the dynamic and work-life balance were better than the former firm. He responded with “This may sound sexist, but … ” and continued on to make a disparaging remark about women.

My question: He’s hounding me for my headhunter contacts. I feel I do not owe him anything, but do not want a confrontation. What should I do? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

The way people learn that their sexist attitudes are not only wrong but also unwelcome is by being held accountable for expressing them. You don’t say that the remark was out of character for your former colleague. Particularly if you think it was reflective of his worldview, you’d be helping the cause of gender equality if you told him that his sexist remark made you disinclined to advance his career. Would the cost to you be too great? Given that you’re in the same line of business, you might judge that alienating him is a bad idea — maybe he’d try to damage your reputation as payback for your calling him out.

Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward way to avoid his request without causing offense. Ignoring him might simply prompt him to pester you further, and your aim is apparently to get him out of your life, not to have him buzzing around you like a nettled wasp. You could give him what he wants in order to keep the peace, but that might gnaw at your conscience. Your final option is to provide him your contacts, while letting the headhunters know of your concerns about him. If you do so, you should find a way to let your ex-colleague know, too, that you found his commentary unsettling.

A Bonus Question

During the holidays, my partner’s teenage nephew came out to me. I started dating his aunt before he was born, so he is family to me. I love him dearly, and I tried to be as supportive as I could. I am the first adult he’s told. He also told me that he is dating a boy from school.

Here is the rub: His father’s behavior regarding L.G.B.T.Q. people is dangerous, and the father has been violent in the past. He once physically attacked a person he took for a drag queen while drunk, and his attitude toward gay men is dreadful. My sister-in-law separated from him years ago, but my nephew still spends half his time at his father’s house. So all I can think of is what happens if this man comes home to his son making out with a boy, which my nephew tells me has almost happened at least once.

I know I can’t betray my nephew’s trust and out him to his mom (who might be able to intervene before something happens), but I really do not think he is safe with his dad. And he is just a kid. How do I tell a 14-year-old boy, already scared his family won’t accept him because he is gay, not to make out with the boy he likes because his dad can be a violent homophobe? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

This teenager is lucky to have a loving adult whom he trusts on his side. But you clearly think he’d be better off taking his mother into his confidence too. The first thing to do is to help your nephew think through whether he should tell her, especially given that it might help mitigate the risk posed by his father’s anti-gay attitudes and behavior. You could even volunteer to be there when he does come out to her, if he thinks that would be helpful.

But whatever your nephew decides about this, you do need to have a frank conversation with him about his father’s attitudes and alert him to your concerns. Fourteen-year-old boys are not generally prepared for all the emotional ups and downs of first love, and he may be inclined to take more risks than he should.

Readers Respond

The previous column’s question was from a reader whose wealthy friend had recently confided she got college financial aid for her son by having the son’s stepmother lie and claim him as a dependent on her taxes for several years. This friend and her husband make a combined income of over $500,000. Our letter writer shared: “I just learned that her son is now getting a full grant to a very expensive private college. I’m supposed to take a weekend trip with my friend in a few weeks, but I’m so angry about this I don’t know if I can speak to her. Is this fraud? What is my responsibility in this situation?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “What your friend is doing is seriously wrong, and the indignation you feel is a fitting response to it. You have another reason to be angry. In telling you this story, your friend showed that she took you to be someone who would share her indifference to the moral issues here.” The Ethicist excused the letter writer from an obligation to report the deception, but wrote: “You should at least tell her that what she and her family are doing is abhorrent, as well as unlawful, and that they shouldn’t do it next year. … Your conniving friend is basically playing Robin Hood in reverse. Maybe this isn’t a friendship worth holding onto.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

This is not a no-harm-no-foul situation; it’s theft of a great deal of money, probably tens of thousands of dollars, that should have gone to a more deserving student. Would the Ethicist advocate turning a blind eye and not reporting a friend who had robbed a bank? Of course not. What’s the difference? Craig

I love the Ethicist’s idea of confronting the friend with the concept that she seems to think you are the kind of person who would tolerate, or even admire, such fraud. You have been insulted. After all these years, has she no idea who you are and what your morals are? Cliff

The son may not know the full story or understand the implications of his parents’ fraud as we’ve seen in recent news stories. He’s the one who would suffer most perhaps from his dismissal from the school. That record might follow him throughout his career. What a terrible example to set for a child. Pamela

Instead of the Ethicist’s euphemism of Robin Hood, can we acknowledge this is likely white collar crime? A theft of tens of thousands of dollars? Admittedly there was no threat of violence and they are from an economically advantaged demographic both ingredients in the disparities we see in arrests, convictions and sentences. I’m sure their actions reflect advice among a certain “smart” crowd. The writer is correct: It is despicable. Robert

Decades ago, I was one of those kids in financial need who received a full scholarship for all four years. I consider that gift the foundation of the person I have since become. College was my first experience of being supported intellectually and cheered on. This family has stolen more than just money. Wandajune

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