Disturbing Behavior By Co-Worker

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a co-worker who shows disturbing behavior:

Question:

I have feverishly searched your extensive archive looking for answers to this dilemma. Nothing quite answers this situation. I have just started working in a new job, about 8 months now. About 3 or 4 months in, a male coworker (please note that this coworker is older than I am), who I knew very little about, started talking to me. Being relatively new to the office, I looked at his behavior (very initially) as friendly. A helping hand so to speak.

However certain of his behaviors started changing and he would tell me that he likes me. He would behave strangely sometimes for the next couple weeks then everything seemed to settle. So there I was thinking “Oh, he was just playing”. Months later (no sign of this type of behavior before) he hugged me (non-sexual manner both times) for my birthday and one time after that.

Our business is the type of job where we work very long hours. My coworkers who work in my same department were assisting in the department where this guy is, late into the night.The other workers there asked him which one of the girls in the office he liked and he said it was me. A couple days afterwards my coworkers are working late again (we are in busy season) with this guy.  He was telling the guys in his department that we were an item, that I was “easy” and how he slept with me already.

All of this about what he said is hearsay at best. His co-workers are saying that whenever I am around he gets more aggressive with them. I do not know how many of the co-workers believe that it is true. Either way it is highly disturbing. His mannerism is disturbing and I have no idea what will happen if/when I report this incident to HR. Help/Guidance with this is urgently and greatly needed. My co-workers suggest that I confront him to cease and desist. My mother thinks not so wise because of his mannerisms.

Signed,

Worried


Answer:

Dear Worried:

Our archives are filled with situations that are applicable to yours. We say the same things to everyone who writes about inappropriate behavior, and I will repeat it: Don’t accept inappropriate, disturbing behavior. Report it and insist on a response from management. Don’t talk about it to others, unless it is necessary for them to know.

1. Unless your coworkers are lying (and they might be) you have a clear situation of sexually inappropriate comments being made by the older coworker. A workplace the size of the one you describe will have clear rules against discussing a coworker in a sexual way. It has already caused gossip and could harm you personally and professionally for years. In addition, if it is true, it shows a potentially dangerous obsession by the older coworker. I’m surprised no one has thought about that as this has developed!

Good grief, what else might he be fantasizing?

Write down who said what to you and when they said it, and take that list to your manager. Tell him or her how frightened this has made you and that you would like to have it investigated immediately and stopped if it is true that he said those things. Then, say there have been other things that have been disturbing. Don’t leave that out, just because you are approaching it from the viewpoint of what others have said. You need to be open and honest about what has occurred and how you at first thought he was OK, but now are uncomfortable. BUT, you need to be able to say why.

2. You mention non-sexual hugging (birthday and another occasion). But, except for that you don’t describe any actions that seem specifically to be inappropriate. Make a list of the things that have happened, including tones of voice, looks or comments that have disturbed you. That kind of list will be useful when you talk to your manager. It doesn’t help to say, “He disturbs me”, if you can’t say what it was that the person did.

3. Avoid the person who makes you uncomfortable, except for civil and courteous work communications. Do not talk to him about personal things and change the subject or stop him if he tries to do so. “Jim, I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t feel comfortable talking about our personal lives. Let’s get back to work talk, OK?”

One thing is absolute: Don’t joke with him about these matters, as though you don’t really mind. You don’t have to be angry sounding, just determined. “Wow, that goes over the line, don’t you think?” “I don’t think you’d say that if a manager was around, so don’t say it now. It sounds bad, even if you didn’t mean it that way.” “My neck doesn’t hurt and I don’t like having someone rub it, so don’t do that.” “No, no, Jim, I’m not the huggy type, so let’s not!”

4. Bring this to a halt now. It’s 2013, you’re a young adult and no one would think any of this was right for a workplace. If it will help you, find someone you trust and discuss it with them, telling them your plans and asking for input. But, don’t wait. And, don’t keep letting people talk to you about this. Next time they do, stop them by asking what they did about the inappropriate things they heard, other than wait and tattle to you. Make them see their responsibility in the disturbing behavior.

5. This will be a challenging situation. Your coworker will probably be embarrassed to be asked about it. He’ll probably be angry that his coworkers told you what he said. He may want to talk to you about it. Don’t get involved with that. Just tell him you’ve been told not to discuss it. Focus on your own work and being a good employee. This probably won’t be your last place of employment and one day this will only be an uncomfortable feeling….if you deal with it the direct and correct way. Best wishes to you. If you have the chance and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe