Overly-friendly Co-worker – Sexual or Not?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about sexual tone: By “friendly” I mean he touches younger female co-workers (including me) on the shoulder, he puts his arms around their shoulders while walking, he rubs their arms, holds them by the arm, asks for hugs or just spontaneously hugs, stands way too close when talking,

I looked through your archives but would appreciate more specific advice on this matter. I have a co-worker (he’s the IT guy) who has always been extremely friendly. By “friendly” I mean he touches younger female co-workers (including me) on the shoulder, he puts his arms around their shoulders while walking, he rubs their arms, holds them by the arm, asks for hugs or just spontaneously hugs, stands way too close when talking, comes up behind and grabs people by the shoulders or waist. Only when speaking with younger women, he speaks in a soft, moaning, almost baby-like voice (think Marilyn Monroe). He also dresses quite inappropriately. He bikes to work in a spandex body suit and will often come around and do his touching and rubbing in a very sweaty and out-of breath state. When he finally gets changed, he wears skin-tight athletic clothes or shirts that are unbuttoned to expose his chest.

In my case, he has been doing this for as long as I’ve known him. I obviously find it bothersome. I have resorted to keeping my door closed because he always finds a reason to come in and try and get close to me. I have told him many times to no avail that I do not like to be touched. I have asked him to please respect my personal space. I have physically removed his hand from my shoulder and asked him to stop touching me. When I mentioned it to management, I was told that this is his style – he is a touchy-feely person but a very nice guy who means well. The thing is he is very careful about what he says to people. He has never said anything sexual to me. He will pay me lots of personal compliments. “You are sweet like honey” is the most suggestive he has ever gotten with me. He has never overtly propositioned even though I find his tone suggestive. Only the way he says things and his non-verbal behavior are, in my opinion, sexual and totally unacceptable.

He is very friendly but I don’t feel comfortable around him – I always feel like I am compromising my boundaries to tolerate his behavior. My question to you is: does this qualify as sexual harassment even though he hasn’t actually said anything overtly sexual or touched/grabbed anybody sexually (he always stays in the shoulder/arm/hands area)? Also, what do you think I can do to not have to deal with this anymore? Always having to worry about his next stunt is really affecting my level of morale at work. Thanks for your time and response.

Signed, Not A Hands-On Woman

Dear Not A Hands-On Woman:

Your management is wrong to say, “That’s just the way he is; he’s just a touchy-feely person.” Rather management should say, “We will stop this hands-on guy!” I can’t learn from your description/question to us what were the words you used to complain to management about Mr. Too Friendly. I can’t believe they answered you in this way if you spelled out to them what you wrote to us. Your words must not have been clear and strong enough.

This is a case where actions and tone speak louder than words. Your company is responsible to stop such sexually obvious non-verbal actions, not tomorrow but yesterday. You warned them. It is in danger of being sued. We don’t provide legal advice, so if you have any doubt that you should be more firm and insistent, check with a local attorney. I could say more, but no more is needed. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that doesn’t include invading another personal space and treating them as sexual objects. He was hired for IT and IT doesn’t stand for Interpersonal Touching–close physical contact; grabbing shoulders, rubbing arms, and a suggestive tone.

William Gorden