Q: What do you do if you are a woman in your male boss’s office discussing something work-related, but he is playing a movie on his phone and there are sex scenes on it?

He wasn’t paying any attention to the movie when he was talking to me, but I was distracted by it because his phone was facing toward me. It wasn’t porn. I think it was a PG-13 movie with a mainstream actress.

This is the first time something like this has happened. Should I say something to him?

A: Let’s get the “duh” items out of the way first:

Watching movies while on the clock is unprofessional, unless it’s somehow relevant to your job.

Watching sexually suggestive content on the clock — again, unless you’re paid to do so — is unprofessional; violates most employers’ standards of conduct; and could be considered contributing to a hostile work environment, especially if you’re subjecting other people to it and they are offended.


Impact matters more than intent. Even if someone doesn’t mean to offend or make others uncomfortable, intent alone is not enough to escape accountability.

But as you’ve explained it, there’s a lot of gray area in your situation that doesn’t neatly align with those statements. So let’s consider a full range of possibilities from “careless onetime goof” to “opening gambit in a harassment campaign.”

At one extreme, I can imagine your boss surfing YouTube with autoplay enabled, and genuinely not realizing he had landed on inappropriate content that was visible to you. Unprofessional, yes, but not a hanging offense.

Unfortunately, this world being what it is, I can also anticipate the worst-case scenario: that he was deliberately exposing you to a racy clip to see how you would react, using a mainstream movie to give him plausible deniability. It might sound contrived, but plenty of predators get away with increasingly outrageous behavior because no one connects the dots between incidents until they’ve escalated to the point of blatant harassment.

Even so, anticipating the worst is not the same as assuming it; one incident is not yet proof of a pattern.

You might have a better idea what was really going on if you had said something neutral and nonreactive in the moment to call attention to the disruption — “Whatcha watching?” or “I’m sorry, can you pause that? It’s distracting me from our conversation.” — and observed his reaction. But most of us would be too stunned in the moment to process the incident and form an appropriate response on the spot — which, again, is something predators count on. And now that the moment has passed, it’s hard to think of an effective way to bring it up without making things more awkward for you.

But you still own your recollection of what happened, and you can use it to prepare yourself if it happens again. Write down the date and time of the incident, what happened, what you saw, how you felt, what was said, and anyone you told about it. Email the statement to your personal account or save it somewhere outside of company-owned property and networks.

If it was a one-time anomaly, you can let it fade from memory. But if something similar happens again with this boss, to you or someone else — and if your encounter wasn’t accidental, it almost certainly will happen again — then you’ll have a bit of insurance. Your record will help show if those similar incidents are part of a pattern, and it will help keep anyone from talking you out of believing what you witnessed with your own eyes.