Creative Leadership

What To Do When You Receive Unwanted Sexual or Provocative Messages from Admirers

You don’t have to be a leader for long before you start receiving unwanted emails, text messages, or phone calls from “admirers.” While some may be innocent, it’s difficult to tell at the start, and for the sake of your reputation and integrity, I recommend you take no chances. In our team’s work helping churches, ministries, and nonprofits tell their story, I’ve seen leaders who have stepped down or been fired because of this issue, so please take it seriously. Remember that email isn’t private. In a legal case, a police investigation, or a simple hack, your emails, text messages, social media, and phone records can become public in an instant.

So if you start receiving suggestive photos, intimate messages, or find that someone of either sex is reaching out to you inappropriately or without your invitation, here’s what I recommend:

1) Don’t respond. In the future, just a response to an unwanted message could be taken as a sign that you welcomed the messages, or that you were involved. Plus, for trolls or someone obsessed with you, any response at all is an encouragement.

2) Alert your closest associates. Share the message with your assistant, close associate, spouse, and even your attorney. Making it public early shows that the messages were unwanted. I received this kind of email a few years ago from a woman who heard me speak at a conference. I not only shared it with my wife, our female assistant, and a producer in our company – I had my assistant respond. Once the female “admirer” knew that my female assistant was reading my email, we never heard from her again.

3) If it’s persistent, you should block them. If that doesn’t work, consider changing your email address or mobile phone number.  Try blocking the email address, phone number, or social media accounts first. In most cases, that’s all it takes to stop unwanted communication. But if that doesn’t stop them, then get a new email address or mobile number. Integrity is worth the inconvenience.

4) In some cases, you may want to give your assistant access to your email account all the time. I work with a number of pastors and leaders who do this. That’s a pretty good accountability method, because you can’t be fooling around when others have access to your email.

5) If you deem it serious enough (sexually explicit photos, threats, provocative messages, etc) then by all means get your attorney’s advice. What seems simple today can easily escalate into a legal situation.

6) Finally – in those serious cases, also get advice from a trusted media and communications expert. There are some great attorneys out there whose goal is to win your case or protect you legally – and save your reputation. But saving your reputation isn’t always a priority in the courtroom. In my work with pastors and leaders in this area, there have been cases where my clients followed good legal advice, but years later, because the legal decision became a public document, it hurt them in the press. A trusted media counselor will also help advise you on how the public, press, congregation, or donors will respond. So getting good legal and public relations counsel now can help deflect miscommunication, bad assumptions, and an unfriendly reporter’s agenda in the future.

In a digital age, leaders need to live a transparent life.

Sexual harassment and abuse is inexcusable, and it’s good that bad leaders are being forced to step down. But at the same time, there are good men and women who have simply not responded well when a potentially damaging situation is instigated by others. In a digital world, it’s easier than ever for an unwanted “admirer” to contact you by email, phone, texting, or social media. The key is to never put yourself in a situation where things could be interpreted incorrectly, and if you do, take immediate steps to correct it.

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  1. Phil, you’re spot on, as per usual. As a public relations/communications professional I have always taken very seriously the perspective that one should always assume that anything you say, to anyone and in any scenario, is a public statement. If you don’t want to see your comments and thoughts splashed across the New York Times or tweeted by the Huffington Post, don’t say it. Period. There’s no such thing as off the record. Treat any conversations you have exactly the way you should treat a firearm: assume that it’s loaded, even if you know it’s not.

    And, as you pointed out, transparency is paramount. You’ll never get burned or regret being transparent in your dealings. If you don’t have anything to hide, then don’t!

  2. Great thoughts Phil and you’re right, it’s not a matter for most leaders whether it will happen, but when it will happen. I especially appreciate point #4. Setting up filters like having an assistant review all emails before things like this even gets to you can be a very healthy practice. It protects you as a leader and communicates great transparency. This is a complex situation and if a leader follows your advice they will be in a much better place for long term success. Transparency is key.

  3. I’m not married and occasionally worry that my communication (particularly with married men) might be misunderstood. I don’t sign off messages with kisses or get into lengthy text/message conversations with an opposite sex person who’s married….or share any emotional dramas unless I’m with them as a couple. Just a few personal boundaries but I’m surprised at how many Christian leaders don’t have their own set of boundaries to prevent them from getting into hot water. Over the years, I’ve had messages from male leaders, which could have been misunderstood or easily progressed into something suggestive (if that was my intention…but it wasn’t!!!) and I wonder how many leaders realise that they’re not immune to falling into this trap. So it’s not just what to do when you receive unwanted messages, but how to protect yourself from accidentally (or otherwise) giving off the impression you’re ok with receiving them, in the first place. Strong boundaries are pretty much the best way to protect yourself.

    1. I think your key line was “So it’s not just what to do when you receive unwanted messages, but how to protect yourself from accidentally (or otherwise) giving off the impression you’re ok with receiving them, in the first place.” There’s a major Christian leader who I believe is totally innocent of the accusations, but he’s guilty of your point. If you don’t act right away, it will give the appearance that “you’re OK with receiving them in the first place.” Very well said. Thanks for posting!

  4. I find it interesting that you focus on the guy receiving these. What about women who are in leadership or work with leaders who receive these from the leader or pastor? It seems like we’re so quick to align our support with pastors or leaders but what if they are the perpetrator? I guess that’s another article or discussion.

    1. Actually, I think it’s cultural conditioning that you would assume it’s written to guys. Read it again… 🙂 But you’re absolutely right that this cuts both ways. And you’re also right about another blog post on leaders being the perpetrator… Thanks for the comment!

      1. You’re right! This applies to men and women in leadership. Thanks for the clarification and calling out my cultural conditioning. 😀

  5. It’s amazing how unhelpful the police are in a harassment situation. Their definition of stalking and another’s ends up being two very different things. In a situation I once was found myself in with an unwanted admirer who followed our television program, the chief reported his hands were tied unless an actual physical assault occurred. In other words, they could only help AFTER the crime had happened!

    1. It’s been a long time problem, as police officers try to learn how to respond. The legal system can sometimes hurt more than help. Hopefully that’s evolving in a good way…

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