Moral Dilemmas: Is Wall Street Wizardry A License to Sexually Harrass?

'You've done it again," Fran whispered to me as the waiters cleared the dinner dishes and brought in dessert. Dinner with the bond traders couldn't have gone better. In the private dining room of a Manhattan restaurant, they'd listened attentively, then suggested a dozen good ways to improve interaction with my team of salespeople. Our plan to remedy the rocky relationship within our investment bank had worked.

So when the head trader, Carson, stood up, I assumed he was about to thank us for the evening and send everyone off with his endorsement. Instead, he said he had a magic trick he wanted to show us, and asked Fran if she would assist him.

I should have guessed something was wrong when I saw the rest of the traders duck their heads and focus on the sorbet in front of them. Their boss proceeded to demonstrate an obscene pantomime, with Fran as patsy. When I grasped what Carson had done, I, too, lowered my head. The discomfort of everyone in the room was palpable, but I was powerless to alleviate the situation. I was stunned by how he'd chosen to respond to our gesture of goodwill. But I was angry, too. I'd figured that sort of infamous Wall Street behavior was behind us, banished from the politically aware 1990s.

Going home, I imagined my added humiliation if Carson had chosen me as his "assistant," and my boss had been sitting at the table. Wouldn't I expect him to defend me?

I went to my boss the next morning and told him the whole story.

"It's grounds for dismissal," he said, without hesitation.

"But Carson is 'master of the universe' in the bond department," I told him. "His team is having a record year. Any penalty imposed on the white knight who turned the bond department around would be doubly felt by Fran. She knows this, and wants me to let it drop."

"If he reported to me, he'd be gone," my boss said. I was thankful that I worked for a person who considered such behavior on a par with dishonesty and incompetence. I wasn't out to get Carson fired, but I didn't want him to think he could act this way, either. If I complained, I worried about repercussions for Fran and our sales department.

What was my alternative? Ignore his behavior? Rationalize it as a lapse in judgment, a regrettable result of business pressure?

Fran deserved better than that. We all deserved better than that. I scheduled a meeting with Carson's boss, Fred.

In Fred's office, I came right to the point.

"Carson played a trick on a woman at our dinner with the traders last week."

"The lemon trick?" Fred asked. His voice sounded weary.

"You know about it?"

"He did it at our Christmas party."

"What did you say to him?" I asked.

"I didn't know what to say." And then, as if a valve had been released, Fred opened up. "Carson ignores me," he said. The man whose trading prowess was dazzling the bond department acted as if his profitable bottom line had given him that right.

"What if he does this trick in front of clients?" I said, trying one last tack with Fred. But I knew it was unlikely that he would act - and, sadly, I understood why. He was intimidated by Carson.

A few months later, Fred called me to say he'd spoken to Carson. During the bond department's annual review, a senior woman on their evaluation committee said she'd heard about an obscene demonstration that Carson conducted at a holiday party. With this comment as cover, Fred acted. He reassured Carson that while it wasn't going to cost him a penny on his bonus, he'd better cut that sort of thing out. Carson thanked Fred for tipping him off.

Despite its circuitous route, the message had finally been delivered to Carson. I saw no reason to tell Fred that I'd doubted him and given the information myself to the woman on the evaluation committee.

Carson's traders and our salespeople were getting along fine. These were results I could live with. I could also live with myself.

* The author, a New York writer and mother of two, is the retired managing director of a Wall Street investment bank. Because of the privacy issues involved in this incident, real names were not used.

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