89

Some Background

  • I'm a 21 year old female

  • I'm living in west Europe

  • I am in a committed relationship with my boyfriend


The Problem

I recently started an internship for the summer which is amazing but I'm having trouble with some male colleagues who are between 15 and 25 years my senior making inappropriate comments such as "Your body looks great in that dress/top/etc.", or "I'd take you for dinner and a show if I didn't have to worry about my wife finding out" and so on. I always dress very respectably for my job, I never wear anything revealing or show much flesh and I certainly don't return the comments, I normally just try and brush them off or tell them in a nice way that I'm not interested, I've even tried saying "Oh I don't know how my boyfriend would like that" upon being asked to go for dinner to try and get the message across to no avail.

I don't know if anyone else has heard any of the comments, if they have they're ignoring them, and I would rather not have to take it to HR because I've only been working there for about 5 weeks and the people making the comments and are well respected in the workplace so I don't even know if my claim would be taken seriously. I want to try and solve this without HR first, I'd like HR to be my last resort, not my first.

I am in a committed relationship with my boyfriend, he knows about the comments in work and he understands where I am coming from with not wanting to bring it to HR but between the two of us we can't figure out a good way to solve this without involving HR.

How can I deal with this once and for all in a respectable manner without getting myself into a sticky situation? It's making me dread going into work because I don't know what to expect each day.

Clarifying Details - will add more if anything becomes applicable

  • The advances are completely and utterly unwanted, all they do is make me extremely uncomfortable.

  • The people who are making the comments are all well above me in the chain of leadership.

  • HR is comprised of mostly men so I don't know how they'll view it.

  • Everyone in the company is quite close, it's a small company and they don't have a high staff turnover, so I am afraid that it may be seen as a vendetta of sorts if I raise the problem or I may just be ganged up on leading to more problems for me in the long run.

  • I work in an IT department in the finance/banking/consulting industry, in a very conservative work environment. There are other women, they are married and don't seem to face this issue.

Update

I happened to run into a woman my age from another department yesterday in the bathroom, she was quite upset so I asked her what was wrong and it turns out what was happening to me was also happening to her and she felt like she had no control over it all. We talked about it all for a while and decided to go together to HR considering we now have each other for support and we have been assured that a firm hand will be taken in dealing with the situation. Thanks to everyone for the answers and the support, it is all so appreciated and really helped the both of us!

  • 26
    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – user58 Jul 4 '18 at 15:06
  • 23
    @Chilly One thing all the answers so far have in common is that they make no reference to your relationship status. You mention it a lot, could you clarify why you thinks it is relevant to the question? – Spagirl Jul 4 '18 at 15:52
  • 8
    Could you add the country for cultural quirks? "Western Europe" is much too broad. – Thorsten S. Jul 4 '18 at 18:12
  • 23
    I think this question is certainly on topic here, but you might also want to check out TheWorkplace.SE as they tend to approach questions like this more in terms of career repercussions and chain-of-command, rather than just focusing on what you can do one-on-one (as is usual here). – 1006a Jul 4 '18 at 20:42
  • 8
    @Spagirl I thought it necessary to make it obvious to try and stop people answering/commenting telling me to just go on a date because it can't hurt, just covering myself on all bases! – Chilly Jul 5 '18 at 16:05
118

It's hard to deal with someone in a respectful manner if they themselves are not giving you respect. In this situation I would recommend being blunt and get directly to the point when refusing him.

This answer from the Workplace SE has some great advice about the situation.

So, in addition to writing things down after they happen each time, start speaking up anyway. When he touches you, say "Please don't touch me." Get louder each time. It will become easier as you do it, and enforcing boundaries is a useful skill.

Shame is your friend here. I have shut down a few overeager people by loudly telling them to get away from me. Be loud, be direct, and be assertive. Don't back down if they resist, and make them feel bad for what they are doing. Once they are facing social pressure from others they may back down and leave you alone.

Sadly, shaming will not always work. If your colleague is still harassing you after you are incredibly blunt about the situation, it would be a good time to go to HR. Start documenting all of the times he makes advances on you, as well as what he says and go to HR. This is what they are there for. As Herr Derb stated in their comment:

If HR doesn't take you seriously, the whole company is foul.

If they won't do anything about blatant harassment then it would be wise to jump ship. You can always explain to a new employer about why you left, but staying there will probably be more detrimental to your well being.

  • 1
    I would like to clarify that this answer addresses offensive advances, verbal and otherwise, from people who would do well to be ashamed of their inconsiderate and disrespectful behavior. I.e. they don't care about anyone but themselves, so only something which affects them will supply any motivation to change. Of course, it would be less advisable if the person was socially awkward and simply had no idea how offensive their behavior was; those such people could genuinely care to improve their behavior, and embarrassment could likely cause them to simply withdraw and never learn anything. – can-ned_food Jul 10 '18 at 4:05
60

A lot of people - myself included - have seen it happen, where someone new to the company or in a low-ranking position has a problem and they fear they will either be ignored or nothing will get done, so they never try to solve it. In practice, at least in my own work experiences (in the UK), something almost always gets done for those who ask for it.

The most common solution I've seen is to be firm and make your objections clear in such a way the other person knows that it is no joke. "Can you please stop making comments like that? They make me uncomfortable." This approach is professional and non-aggressive; the best sort of response for such a situation in a corporate environment. It also leaves no room for misinterpretation. Ask them by email if you feel it will be difficult to say anything in a crowd. If it persists, I know this isn't what you want to hear, but this is when you go to your manager or HR. It's their job to make sure you are in a comfortable and effective workplace. Some places will even respect a request that you be anonymous or that they give a metaphorical slap on the wrist rather than a formal complaint.

For any halfway decent company, rules and laws regarding harassment are the same, regardless of your role, relationship status or your time with them. Let the system work for you.

19

Your current proposition for dealing with this seems to be predicated on the assumption that either you have to deal with it alone or involve HR and there's nothing in between.

In reality your line manager (or buddy/mentor if you have one as a new joiner) is unlikely to be HR and should be well equipped to deal with this appropriately and in a way that you're comfortable with (and even if they're not experienced should have avenues of support open still). So I'd suggest a private chat with them to start with.

If I was your manager I'd be worried if you didn't feel able to raise this with me and very concerned if I found out you'd been suffering in silence. I'd also be neglecting my duty if I didn't help you deal with it in a way you're comfortable with.

Since you've expressed a preference to not involve HR there are still lots of options open if you engage with your manager on this (and they should work with you along the way or open themselves up to serious complaints also):

  1. They might know the individual well enough to offer better advice than strangers on the Internet for exactly what you already suggested doing which would be things you yourself could do directly.
  2. They should keep track of this situation and support you in making sure it is resolved, no matter which initial path you pick to take
  3. They should offer to intervene (privately) on your behalf, without making a formal complaint to HR if that is your preference. This is the reason I'm writing this answer, because I suspect it's likely to be both more effective and simultaneously less awkward for you if they do this on your behalf.
  4. Depending on the size and nature of the employer they may be able to recommend others internally who can support you
  5. If your line manager isn't supportive (pretty unlikely in Western Europe in this era I think) then there are clearly much bigger problems with this company and you might want to thinking about more formal procedures.

You're in control here, but you don't have to go it alone even if you don't want to bring in HR. Don't suffer this alone and don't let your status within the company be an excuse for their crappy corporate culture that didn't already challenge this.

18

Taking from what TheRealLester said in their answer:

Be loud, be direct, and be assertive.

You've said "Oh I don't know how my boyfriend would like that" when they ask you out to dinner, however this is too passive, and leaves room for interpretation that there may still be an opportunity for the colleagues in question. You know that what you're saying means no, but to them they are just hearing "my boyfriend may not like that". And if they're willing to cheat on their wives, without regard for how the wife will feel if she finds out, they're certainly not going to care whether your boyfriend will be happy or not.

Instead, you should try using a phrase which leaves no room for interpretation, something like:

No, I'm not interested in going out for dinner with you, or going to any other non-business related events. Now please stop harassing me with these requests - you're making me feel uncomfortable, and I will take this to HR if you continue.

The keywords here are no and stop. This makes your case stronger, as it is making 100% clear that you're not interested. If the behaviour continues, then as others have said, you will need to go to HR. Document what comments were made, by who, and when. Document what your responses were, and take all of this information to HR.

Your original reply of "Oh I don't know how my boyfriend would like that" should be enough for any HR department to see that you want these comments to stop, but as you say, you're worried that they won't take you seriously as they are mostly male as well. By using words like no and stop in your responses leaves HR no room to manoeuvre around and claim mis-interpretations from your colleagues. You've told them to stop, and they haven't - there's no way that can be turned around against you.

14

Speaking as a man who has never been on either the giving or receiving end of such a situation, I'd suggest you follow a strategy of ramping up the response.

Start with a mild, polite rejection. If someone doesn't know you have a boyfriend and finds you attractive, there's no point being rude to him. Just say, "I'm sorry, but I already have a boyfriend" or some such.

If he persists, step it up. "No, I'm not interested. Please leave me alone." If he continues, reject him loudly enough that others will hear. The point here is to embarrass him so that he'll be afraid to continue the behavior.

Say things like "this is harassment" or "stop harassing me". Tell him that if it doesn't stop, you will have no choice but to go to your boss or HR. The point here is to warn him that his behavior can lead to serious consequences, including losing his job or even facing a law suit.

If it still doesn't stop, the next step is to go to your boss or some other person in authority. If you want to make yourself the "good guy", say that you are willing to resolve the situation quietly, that you don't want to involve HR or turn this into a lawsuit. Odds are the boss will then have a talk with the offending person, and/or arrange for you and him to not be working together.

If the boss laughs off your problem, or his response his ineffective, then your only choices are: go to HR, decide to live with it, or get a different job.


From another perspective:

Men who do this tend to fall into three categories:

One: Those who think they are just being friendly and joking around. I don't know exactly what the men you refer to are doing, but there are women who enjoy light-hearted flirting by co-workers. They take it as a compliment or silly fun. I've been in lots of offices where this sort of thing went back and forth all the time. I tend to stay out of it because I'm afraid that I'd cross a line at some point and offend someone. And indeed I've seen that happens: A man makes light-hearted comments to a woman, she laughs, maybe responds in kind. The next day he makes a slightly more direct comment and now she's offended and angry. For men like this, just telling them, "Please stop" or "This is getting out of hand" will likely have them stammering apologies and scurrying away in embarrassment.

Two: Men who are really looking for a date and think your rejections aren't serious. I recently saw a question on another forum where a woman said, "A man I really like asked me out. I told him no because I wanted him to try harder. Why hasn't he asked again?" Lots of women like to play this kind of game, and men have a hard time telling if you really mean no or if you're just playing. For that kind of man, you need a firm, unambiguous, no. For some men, if you say "I'm sorry but I'm busy that night", they get the idea that it's a polite brush off. Some take two or three such excuses before they get the idea. Similarly, "Oh, I just couldn't ..." or "I don't know ..." can be interpreted as playing a game. But for such men, a firm but polite, "No, I have a boyfriend and I am not interested in dating anyone else" should shut them down. Stated firmly and decisively, not in some soft, lilting voice.

Three: The creepers who think they will pressure or bully you into sleeping with them. If a man doesn't accept a firm no, he may be in this group. At that point, the only thing that will stop him is public humiliation and/or practical consequences.

I don't know the situation in Europe. Here in the US, companies get very nervous when a woman complains of harassment. A lawsuit can destroy a small company. Management is generally anxious to resolve it quickly.

6

For answers that do involve HR, go to workplace.stackexchange.com

The examples that you gave are, from a man's point of view, offensive. "You look good" is most likely meant as a compliment, "Your body looks good" is offensive. There is no good will behind them. There are situations when people are offended by someone who actually meant well, but that's not the case here.

Your clothes have actually nothing to do with this. You can dress as you like (as long as it is acceptable in the workplace). And whether you have a boyfriend or not doesn't matter. I take it you wouldn't want any of these "men" as your boyfriend if you were single.

The people you have to do with here are men, and disrespectful men at that. Most men are bad at taking hints. If you want them to listen what you say, you must tell them (and on the other hand, that's fine with most men.) So you shouldn't brush this off. If something like this is said to you, you shouldn't brush it off. You should call them out on their behaviour immediately.

For example: "John, listen to me. My body is none of your business. The next time you think about making comments about my body, just keep your mouth shut. I don't want to hear it, and no decent man or woman wants to hear it".

PS. At my current workplace, any man behaving like that would be in deep trouble with my boss. My boss, if he behaved like that (which he wouldn't), would be in trouble with most everyone. So putting these men in their place is something you should do.

4

I’ve never written advice like this so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I think that all these “let HR defend you” and “tell them it makes you uncomfortable” is kinda like telling a kid whose being bullied to tell his bullies to stop it because its making him uncomfortable, its probably going to make it worse.

I feel you are in this situation, you have clearly told them you have a boyfriend and you are not following their game, why are they still doing it? Because

  1. They want to make you mentally tired (they are succeeding) so you
    eventually say yes,

    or

  2. They already know very well you will not say yes, so in a sort of revenge act they are making you feel as bad as they can.

Now, we can all argue forever about what should happen, how should people behave, etc. but the truth is, that even if we manage to create things that protect us we still have to learn how to protect or defend ourselves in case there’s no one to do it for us.

You don’t want to go to HR just yet, so the only solution I see is to just buckle up, set your mind to not let these things drag you down and learn to come back their comments, but not as in to start a fight.

I think that public shamming is a very bad idea, this could make them very angry and could lead to more serious threats, instead make them feel bad about themselves, for instance when they mention their wives say something like “oh you seem to know a lot about that, you cheat on her a lot? Nice” but do this in a sort of joke, this will make them see you are not afraid or uncomfortable, that you can calmly handle anything they throw at you but you will never give in, and finally they will feel guilty for the way they are behaving but this will happen internally.

Be sarcastic but playful, definitely its difficult to find a middle ground. Some other things you can do is to “super-manize” your boyfriend, talk about him a lot in front of them, how he’s tough and he’s done this or that, how he treats you so well and does so many things for you, how he's protected you before, etc. this will show them that they won’t have a chance since you like ‘em tough and will incite in them a feeling of you being protected, even if they know he’s away, this will impact them on an instinctive level.

My girlfriend spent 4 years working in a government environment, she was 22 when she joined, the place was kind heavy, she never got any harassment experiences despite being quite young and good looking, but she did get into plenty of arguments and “who is stronger” games there, she “survived” it because she did all the things I mentioned and never gave in and she never showed any discomfort or weakness, she once even got into an argument with a 45-year-old dude who just wanted to pick a fight and she made him cry, sure there were times when it was too much and naturally came to me to let it all out, she cried out of frustration or anger a few times because people there "teamed up" against her, but as I said, she did this with me, she never let anyone see her "wounded", and after releasing her emotions, she came back stronger and people learnt not to mess with her.

As I said, we could argue forever about how all these behaviours shouldn’t happen and how everybody should be responsible and mature and what not, but reality is far from what it should be and there’s just something about groups of people working in a relatively closed environment, instinct and egos kick in and they start behaving a bit like animals. In any case, even though I totally support the solution of going to HR or finding someplace else, I think it’s going to be temporary, there will always be someone who will want to pick a fight with you.

EDIT: I just remembered something else you can tell them when they make comments about your clothes! Once in college I heard a dude tell some girl that she looked so nice in her blouse or something and she replied: "Oh thanks! I can lend it to you anytime" as in for him to wear it, like two BFF girls sharing clothes, I thought it was pretty clever and cracked me up.

3

You've stated clearly that you are in a committed relationship and, that you've been clear about this. This is a good approach but not necessarily the deterrent you might think. From anecdote, I've heard the French attitude to adultery is somewhat more relaxed than you might expect. For instance, stated attitudes have been, there is only a problem if you are caught and, it would be worse to conduct an affair with another who wasn't themselves in their own long-term relationship. I suspect that this may apply more or less in your locality.

I stereo-typically expect that these senior males are themselves either "happily" married or otherwise in a long-term relationship. If this is so, this gives you some informal leverage. Extending the answer from the TheRealLester, Shame and to some degree Fear are your friends here.

We can empathize, just a bit, with these men. They dream about an illicit rendezvous with an attractive young lady but what they are not considering is the potential payback. You have to remind them of the nightmare when their weakness and misconduct is exposed. Its bad enough looking like a sad old man or "perv" to those in the office but if they were exposed to their wives, partners and families the consequences would be likely harsher.

You don't need to directly threaten them, you can in-fact appear concerned for the well-being of their personal situation whilst maintaining the moral high-ground.

Questions like,

What will your wife think if she finds out what you are saying to me?

I'm young enough to be your daughter. How, are your family anyway?

or more directly,

If people knew you were hitting on me, do you think they'd understand?

The important thing here is not to be conspiratorial. Make it clear that you are completely open with your boyfriend, even if you are not. Show you are happy to expose their behavior, you are not keeping their secret but, at the same time, you are not directly threatening them. You need to raise the specter that you could tell their friends, wives and families of their actions without remorse because you have done nothing wrong. You can do this subtly, if they are smart enough. From one perspective, you are already doing them a favor by not phoning their wives right now.

The impicit fear of "in flagrante delicto" should trump the desire for an indecent liaison.

1

Responding to Inappropriate Comments

"Your body looks great in that dress/top/etc."

Say: "I'm sorry, my body?"

Act as if you are sure there's some innocent meaning in there, but you're having trouble figuring that out. Look them right in the eyes, then as you say "I'm sorry," pull your head back a bit almost imperceptibly as if taken aback. Then, as you raise your eyebrows and turn your head slightly to the side, say the second part. You speak without challenge or any negative attitude, with no internal feeling of having a chip on your shoulder. Keep in mind that the situation is your opponent, not the person. Speak in a confident, not annoyed, not angry, calm tone, perhaps more of a skeptical, questioning, puzzled one. Whatever you get back, pick one to three words from their reply and say "I'm sorry, x y z?". The words you pick should be ones that when dug into, are spoken aloud, and they are forced to think about having said, will embarrass the dickens out of them. Try not to pick words that indicate great interest in them.

Or say: "I'm sorry, how am I supposed to take this?" Your meaning is "please explain to me what meaning you intend me to take from this." Whatever he says, just keep saying "I'm sorry, you are just giving me a compliment?" or maybe "I'm sorry, you're giving me a compliment about my body?".

(None of these movement instructions are hard and fast. Do it in your own way. Your body motions are less to convince him than to convince yourself that you really mean it. Your raised eyebrows help you feel that mild surprise instead of anger. And so on.)

You are using a form of active listening that also borders on meta-modeling. It is slightly less hostile than blatant meta-modeling, and does a better job of keeping the person talking, but has many of the same benefits of forcing him to think about what he has just said and giving him the opportunity to realize how stupid and offensive he sounds.

"I'd take you for dinner and a show if I didn't have to worry about my wife finding out"

Say "I'm sorry, your wife?" like the fact he has a wife is of greatly amazing interest to you (as it should be to him, stopping him from saying these kinds of things to you). Or "I'm sorry, dinner and a show?!?" with a little bit of an incredulous tone, like you are seriously not sure how he could be saying what he's saying.

The wife is a good one. Keep digging into the person's wife. Get him talking all about her. Soon he will find that he has spilled so much about his dysfunctional relationship with his wife that he won't have much steam left for suggesting he's hot stuff to you.

Additional Strategies

You can also try some of the following things:

  • "How am I supposed to be comfortable working here if you keep saying these things?"

  • "How are we supposed to have a professional relationship if you keep saying overly personal things like this?"

  • "How am I supposed to get any work done when you keep interrupting me?"

  • "What kind of relationship are you imagining with someone who has only professional goals in mind at work?"

  • "You have made a very tempting offer for someone looking to date an older married man at work, but, how am I supposed to respond positively when I already have a boyfriend my age outside of work?"

Whatever he says, you don't get ruffled. You don't become afraid you've blown it. You don't answer any of his questions. You don't roll with his suggestions or explain yourself. You just keep reflecting back to him, over and over. "I'm sorry, but ..." and "How/What" questions. Make sure the how/what questions are open-ended. Don't ask questions that have possible-single-word answers that can be "yes" or "no" or "tomorrow."

Also, Important

If he starts talking, let him. Don't say more than you need to. You say the 2 or 3 words, or you say the variant of "How am I supposed to x", and then you be quiet and let him talk. Don't answer questions immediately. Look at him for the count of 5 before talking. Make him squirm by looking directly at him without him having a hint of what you're thinking. His thoughts will turn to himself and he'll become very uncomfortable.

Why

Your goal is to either get the person to shut up or to get him to say something so incredibly over the top that it's absolutely clear harassment that you will immediately take to HR.

He might shut up because he starts thinking about your situation and how exactly you are supposed to respond to the crass and inappropriate comments like he is making. He might shut up when he realizes that you truly aren't interested, you have a mind, you are firm and know what you want, and you handle the situation coolly and calmly, and he has no chance. He might shut up because he gets embarrassed about having discussed his wife so much with the person he's trying to hit on. He might shut up because he realizes he's crossed a big line and is afraid he'll get in trouble.

Practice it

Practice this with a friend until you have it down cold. Make the friend come up and harass you, and you use these techniques. If you're struggling or feel like it's not realistic enough, have a friend get one of his friends that you don't know to "pull a prank" on you, and in a safe public place come up and harass you in exactly one of these ways. Your friend tells the friendly pranker to try to get you to go out with him, and he has to pretend to be your coworker. But the pranker is told to give up if you do a good job or after 2 minutes (say). You get the idea—the confidence and calmness that you learn is the most important part. Your practice gains you that confidence because it's not new and threatening any more.

Source

I think you would greatly benefit from the book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss, which I got most of these ideas from. It is by a former FBI hostage negotiator who learned these strategies and others which would undoubtedly be of use to you.

As the author says in the book, a hostage negotiator has to get all of the hostages out alive, has to pay little or nothing on the ransom demands, and has to get the hostage-taker to feel like the negotiator is a friend and like him, and give himself up. Given that strategies to actually accomplish this in the majority of the situations exist, and actually work, I'm sure you can imagine how having a direct line on those techniques and using them on your inappropriate coworkers could work wonders.

protected by Community Jul 6 '18 at 11:38

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.