Question: My ex-boss and I have been friends for a long time. In fact, starting six years ago we were close while he was going through a hard patch in his marriage, but due to him being married things did not go further than that, though years later we did sleep together.
A coworker of mine had a sexual relationship with a family member of mine. Is that considered sexual harassment?
Response: I can understand that such a situation as you describe could be uncomfortable at work, especially if the coworker and your family member have broken up or if there were bad feelings between them at some point. It would also be uncomfortable if some aspect of the situation was problematic—for example, if one or both of the people were already married to someone else.
Response: Your question was brief. The three question marks you placed after your question, appear to indicate frustration over the subject! Our focus is on workplace communication issues. However, on the chance that you are perplexed about the behavior of women (or one specific woman) where you work, I’ll share a few thoughts. If you have a specific work situation in mind and want to provide further details, let us know.
Flirting is behaving toward another person in a way that could be interpreted as indicating attraction. Like a bird ruffling its feathers in the direction of a potential mate. However, with people—men or women—flirting comments or behavior may not indicate serious interest at all. Often it is intended only to get a similarly flirtatious response, usually for short-term amusement and sometimes to see if anything more serious develops.
A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about
reporting inappropriate touching at work.
I was with my co-worker and he told me that a guy likes me. Then, he asked me, “If you don’t mind, can I take pictures with you to make this guy feel angry?” He was joking with me, so I replied OK.
Things started getting weird when he started getting closer. He put his lips near my chin and I told him I’m feeling uncomfortable. Then he started doing it again and kissed me on my lips. I was shocked! He took the picture really quickly. I told him he could take photos from a distance and he took a selfie of us sitting together. He sent the pic of us sitting together, then I asked for his phone and deleted the picture. When I was deleting his picture he started to touch my breast. I told him “Please stop, I don’t like it” Then I left the scene and never reported it to anyone.
Four days later I told my sister and I told my parents. I told them I didn’t tell anyone because I was afraid people will spread rumors about me. Even though I didn’t tell anyone, another coworker called the perpetrator’s wife and told her that we are having an affair. He called me and apologized. He also told my sister I didn’t say anything to him.
I told him that I gave consent to take the pictures, but I didn’t know he would make me uncomfortable and offend me. I didn’t give him consent to kiss me or touch me. I would like to know how many days is the right time to report an incident. For example, is it too late to report, after a week. And, is this sexual harassment and psychological harassment by my coworker for spreading false rumors?
I get the impression you do not live in the United States, so the company policies in businesses there, may not be the same as here. I also don’t know the kind of workplace culture you deal with. If you are in a professional office, it would probably be different than if you were in a restaurant or a small shop. However, there are nearly always rules and policies, in any country and in any workplace, about behaviors that create problems between employees or that could create a negative reputation for the company. According to what you can prove about the actions of the employee, there might even be a law violation.
In answer to your question about the time factor for reporting harassment or inappropriate activities: You should report any incident of any sexually inappropriate behavior by an employee to you, right away. However, even if you delay for a long time, you can still report it at any time in the future and most organizations will be concerned enough to investigate it. What happens will depend upon how severe the violation was and what the circumstances are now.
In your case, only a short amount of time has passed, so it is certainly not too late to make a complaint about the coworker who touched you inappropriately. It is also not too late to report the potentially very harmful actions of the other coworker who called the other first coworker’s wife about it. Neither behavior is probably going to be considered harassment, unless it has happened repeatedly. But, your employer or organization will probably have rules and guidelines about actions that create conflicts in the workplace.
That is the answer to your question, but I would like to add this as well: This situation was completely avoidable and it points out how both men and women need to take personal responsibility for the things that happen at work. I’m sure one reason this is so upsetting to you is because you want to have a very positive reputation. That is a worthy goal and you can achieve it by being excellent at the work you are paid to do and by being pleasant and a positive member of the work team. Be appropriately friendly to everyone, but don’t get involved in personal conversations while you are work, especially in situations like the one you describe.
Your coworker wasn’t joking around in a friendly way, it sounds to me as though he was being sly and trying to look for a way to get close enough to touch you. He clearly wasn’t acting in a professional manner and he wasn’t looking out for your reputation when he talked to you about someone else liking you. He said he wanted to make the other person angry by getting a photo with you. That should have been your warning that he isn’t a nice person to be around and that getting your picture taken was a bad idea. If you have encouraged that kind of conversation and actions in the past, he may have felt you wouldn’t mind. If you have never done anything to encourage it, he was doubly wrong.
The employee who contacted the coworker’s wife is also not a nice person! Decent people who care about others would not do something like that. However, I would imagine you don’t have a good relationship with her and she wanted to cause problems for you as well as for the other employee. Someone who liked you wouldn’t have done that. Aim to have a pleasant and courteous relationship with all employees and have a reputation for not joking around inappropriately. It reduces the chance that anyone would want to cause you problems by telling a lie about you.
This was a very negative experience, and I can understand how you would have been upset and not wanting to say anything about it. But, you can learn something positive from it. You can move forward and make it a good reminder about how joking around at work, without using good judgment, can lead to big problems.
You can laugh and enjoy the fun things about work. But, you should not let the conversation become personal, sexual or gossipy. And, the second you feel uncomfortable, move away and stop the conversation completely. Don’t let anyone push you into thing you don’t want to do.
I would bet that the next time someone wants to take joking photo or video or wants to talk to you about something personal, alarm bells will go off in your mind! It is a lot less likely to happen again, if you make a point of communicating with others in a way that shows you are a mature person who wants to perform and behave at your very best.
When you are at work, be the kind of person you want to be in all areas of your life. Be a coworker, friend and family member who others can admire and respect. When you do that, you will find that you can avoid upsetting experiences such as the one you’re dealing with now.
When you talk to your supervisor or manager, state the facts just as they happened and say you want their help to make sure you can work without being embarrassed or fearful about the actions of your coworker or the gossip of the other coworker. If your own behavior is questioned or criticized, just say that you didn’t realize how your efforts to be friendly by joking with the coworker might look, and you won’t do it again.
Best wishes to you with this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how it works out for you.
Ask the Workplace Doctors
A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about probable firing of her husband accused of sexual harassment:
My husband has had a complaint of sexual harassment against him; this occurred 2 years ago. The scenario is that after a drunken night out with co-workers while in Japan, he took one of the woman back to his room. When he got there, he realized it was a mistake, but by this time the woman had missed her train and they spent the night together but both claim nothing happened, he says. I don’t know if I believe this. My husband was reprimanded by the company for this.
A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a persistent harassment by coworkers:
I have a harassment issue of sorts that I am unclear what to do about. I worked for a large corporation and moved up quickly. Much to the dismay of others. I was very vocal about issues we faced and my boss hated that. It wasn’t until my boss was promoted that the onslaught began. Once he was placed two levels above me, each of my coworkers began to harass me. Some things I did not find out about until later but things were put in my food, things were sent to me that were blatantly racist and then spread around the office as if I sent them etc…
A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about harassment by a wife of a coworker:
A coworker moved to another building across town. He left me and 2 others in the building a token parting gift. (A mug etched with the company logo) I sent a thank you note to his home, thanking him for the gift, his friendship and wishing him luck in his new job.
A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: What should I do to ensure my staff
is treated appropriately by someone
who has behaved inappropriately in the past?
I have a male colleague who has placed several junior staff (15-20+ years younger; mostly but not entirely female) in uncomfortable situations over the years: getting drunk to the point that they have to take him home to his wife since he can’t stand up straight (injuring themselves accidentally in the process), calling female colleagues while drunk and then lying to his wife about who he’s talking to, getting drunk in front of clients and having colleagues need to “clean up” after (including both helping him as he throws up as well as dealing with the clients), and so on.
I suspect the issues go beyond drinking problems, and that he likely has borderline personality disorder (he fits almost all of the descriptions, including suicidal tendencies) Nobody has ever reported the most egregious incidents to HR or our department head, because he is considered a well-meaning if awkward person, and nobody wants to be responsible for him losing his job (or worse doing something self-destructive).
It’s been years since the last incident, but now he will be working on some projects with junior staff who report to me. Since I am responsible for these people, suddenly I feel like I can’t pretend these things didn’t happen. Any time I see him talking to a female junior colleague, I am worried about whether she’ll be put in an uncomfortable situation at some point. I don’t want to report things that happened years ago, and (more importantly) the most egregious stories aren’t mine to tell. Plus, I don’t even know how to think about these kinds of situations – where it’s not harassment or against corporate policy, but it doesn’t seem right either. I don’t know if I’m ready for the consequences of saying anything, but I also feel like somehow I’m neglecting a moral obligation if I don’t.
You are certainly correct that your leadership (moral) role as well as your managerial (organizational) role is to be both a guide and protector for your staff, about appropriateness with and from others in the organization–especially those who are senior to them or of higher organizational level. It is unfortunate that someone in a leadership role in your company didn’t intervene about your colleague’s behavior and performance years ago–it would have saved a lot of people from discomfort and perhaps fear and anxiety, may have helped the employee get help for himself (and his family), and would have kept you from dealing with this concern now.
Probably the worst mistake organizations make is to tolerate problem behavior or performance because, “That’s just the way Frank is.” Or, “That’s just the way Lisa acts.” Or, “Poor Frank, I think he has personal problems.” When I talk about intervening to correct problem behavior or performance, I often advise, “The earlier, the easier.” It is always easier to redirect behavior at the first indication of a problem than it is to correct chronic problem behavior. If correction is not done by then, it usually takes a crisis before action is finally taken. At that point, often the only thing that can be done is to try to mitigate damage to the organization. Harm to the people involved usually can’t be remedied.
It seems you have two decisions to make: Should you report your colleague’s past behavior? And, what should you do to ensure that your colleague’s behavior with your staff is always appropriate? Here are some things to consider:
1. What was the nature of the past egregious behavior? If your colleague’s behavior while sober or under the influence of alcohol was criminal or potentially criminal (a sexual assault, harassment of any kind–sexual or not–that had an effect on an employee’s life, career or well-being, or if there was criminal behavior related to the assets of the business) and you think the crime was never reported, then you should come forward about it. If I was in your situation, I would talk to an attorney about liability concerns related to such reporting, in case the colleague is cleared of wrongdoing and alleges slander. Nevertheless, if the actions were criminal, I would report it. Probably the behavior didn’t reach that level or you or someone else would have been reported already.
If the behavior was in the category of an organizational violation rather than a criminal one, there is probably no point in reporting it now, since it is a year or more after it occurred. The purpose of reporting a policy violation at the time it happens is to alert the organization (management and HR) about a problem. They can then investigate it and either exonerate the employee or find him or her guilty of violating policies. If the violation is proven, they can use the organization’s disciplinary system, from counseling through progressive sanctions, with or without Employee Assistance programs, up to dismissal, to stop wrong behavior or performance and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This process can also protect other employees from the negative results of behavior that has already occurred and prevent it from being a problem for them in the future.
You say the last problem incident was years ago, so investigating a reported occurrence would be difficult. Most importantly, if the behavior isn’t happening now, sanctions wouldn’t have much purpose. Counseling might still be appropriate but not necessarily. It could be argued that the employee has changed and has essentially counseled and sanctioned himself into correct behavior. Perhaps he has sought counseling and other assistance on his own or was forced to make changes to save his marriage. It may be that the Department Head found out about the situation and warned your colleague of what could happen, so he corrected his behavior, but you weren’t aware of what happened. (I doubt that, but it’s a possibility.)
In addition, since you say most co-workers and subordinates have not reported the employee in the past because they felt sorry for him or didn’t want to cause him problems, it’s likely they wouldn’t want to say anything now. Also, there is the issue that higher level staff might feel that co-workers were partly to blame for not taking action early on to stop the behavior. Thus, fearing repercussions, co-workers will say they don’t remember or that they remember it differently than you do.
I think you are correct that you would see or feel some negative consequences for bringing this up in an official way right now–and not much benefit would come from it. However, you’re right to not ignore the warning bells caused by those memories, when you see your colleague talking to one of your staff members. There is an old supervisory adage about documentation, that is erroneous: “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.” Certainly, incidents should be documented as soon as possible, to have an accurate record of the details. But, memory of past problems, even those that were not documented at the time, are valid reasons to take preventive action. As you say, you will feel you have neglected a moral obligation if you do not do something to prevent harm to individuals, the team and the organization.
2. Has your colleague’s behavior been completely appropriate for a long time now or only appropriate when compared to former times? That distinction is worthwhile to consider, if for no other reason than that it will help reinforce that you are right to be concerned about his behavior with your staff members. In addition, if there have been recent situations that were on-the-verge of being a problem, you have something solid on which to base a blunt conversation with your colleague or a conversation with your own manager.
3. Is the current Department Head aware of past situations?
I work in a restaurant/bar and most of my managers are men (I’m a young woman). They’re constantly telling me to smile and last night one of them said “you’re not cute… Your resting face is especially ugly”. Can I do anything about this?
Hello, thank you for your workplace question. You ask if you can do anything about the fact that your manager said your “resting face” is ugly. (What a rude thing to say!). There is nothing legally you can do about it. If there are higher level managers I think this rises to the level of complaining about rude behavior by someone who is supposed to be motivating you. If it is a corporation with an HR section, you would have the option to complain formally, if it is a small local establishment you may not have that option. So, the work situation will dictate how far you can or want to take it as far as making an internal complaint.
However, perhaps the solution is to think about the complete situation and what you can do to change things so he never says that again and also feels badly that he said it in the first place. You didn’t ask for a long answer about your complete work situation, but even workplace “doctors” should treat the whole-person, not just a symptom.
It’s easy to immediately be upset because someone said your resting face is ugly, and to lose focus on what led up to that unpleasant remark. It sounds as though something did lead up to it. You say you work in a bar/restaurant and your managers are constantly telling you to smile. In most casual restaurants customers want to see someone who is welcoming, friendly and ready to be of service—with a smile. It is the job of the managers to ensure that employees show a smiling and welcoming face. All you have to do is look at Yelp or other restaurant reviews to know how often the main positive or negative critique is about the degree of friendliness and helpfulness of wait staff.
In addition, coworkers feel better when the people they work with seem cheerful rather than angry or unhappy. If your managers are constantly telling you to smile, it could be they have had complaints about your demeanor or they are trying to avoid complaints by reminding you to show a friendly face. Or, maybe when you are unsmiling to them they feel you don’t like them or the job and they resent that attitude. They may feel that you purposely don’t smile because they have asked you to do so and they feel you are being rebellious and uncompliant. Whatever they feel, no one should have said your resting face is ugly. I have, however said to several people on various occasions, “You may think your lack of facial expression looks professionally serious or even just bland, but actually it looks hostile and unpleasant.”
Most of the time when people tell others to smile, they’re not requesting a grin or even a mouth that is up-turned at the corners. They are saying, “Don’t look so discouraged.” “Stop looking angry.” “Get that discontented look off your face.” “Stop looking bored.” “I smiled at you, why don’t you smile at me?” Or, maybe just, “Have a pleasant expression on your face, rather than looking like a robot with no emotion.”
They are asking for something different than the current expression and the best option they can think of is a smile.
You will find it easier to smile if you think the thoughts and words that go with the expressions. Picture what your face (eyes, lips and facial movement) would look like if you were facially expressing the following thoughts (not words, just thoughts).
*Thoughts to convey to guests:
“Hello you guys! Wow, it’s great to have you here! Come on in!” (Big smile)
“Hi there! Let me get that door for you.” (Medium smile)
“Hello, how can I help you?” (Gracious smile.)
“I’ll be right with you.” (Quick smile.)
“Do you need something more?” (Medium smile)
”Hi. This is just an eye contact smile, because I don’t have time to talk.” (Quick smile)
“You smiled at me, so I’ll smile at you.” (Matching smile.)
“I’ll bet you’re mortified because your kids are acting up.” (Sympathetic smile.)
“There’s no one to interact with right now, so I’ll just stand here and look interested and approachable. (Very slight smile, while looking around.)
*Thoughts you could convey to coworkers, even without talking:
“Whew, we’re busy tonight, aren’t we? Hopefully good tips!” (Grin)
“Hi, no time to talk.” (Quick smile.)
*I’m sure you’re as tired as I am.” (Sympathetic smile.)
“You smiled at me, so I’ll smile at you.” (Matching smile.)
“Good evening! Back to work for us!” (Big smile)
*Thoughts to convey to managers:
“Hello, I’m ready to start another shift.” (Big smile)
“I’m glad we’re busy tonight and the business is doing well.” (Medium smile)
“No time to talk. How’re you doing?” (Quick smile)
“You smiled at me, so I’ll smile at you.” (Matching smile.)
No one expects a continuous smile when you’re interacting with them or passing them while working. What they want are the facial expressions that show interest, concern, approachability and openness. If they see no expression or a frowning or disapproving expression, they interpret it as negative feelings on your part, directed at them or at the work in general. Work and life go better when people look pleasant to deal with, even in serious situations.
After this essay on smiling, you probably can figure that my advice, if you intend to keep working there, is to smile appropriately at customers, coworkers and the managers. The line from the play, “Steel Magnolias”–“Smile, it improves your face value”—certainly applies to jobs where your value as an employee is based in part on the expression on your face.
If you haven’t had a smiling personality before, it can seem awkward to suddenly “turn that frown upside down.” I’m sure there have been many things you have smiled about at work, so maybe you can add to those every shift. Think of each customer as someone who needs personal attention, even if they don’t realize it. With coworkers and managers, find something you can mutually smile about and use that as a foundation. “Did you see the cute baby?” “I think the Tigers will win this weekend, don’t you?” “Aren’t we having great weather?” “I hear you have a new car!” It’s just breaking the ice and allowing you to sound and look upbeat.
If you find you dislike the work, the restaurant, the clientele or the managers so much that you can find no reason to try to look satisfied and happy, I hope you will find a place where you can feel positive. Sometimes people or places are so unpleasant it feels too fake and phony to try to put on a happy face and it feels better to leave there and go someplace else. That may be the best solution for you as well. But, if you are doing OK financially there, you may want to just figure each smile is worth a few dollars.
If you and the manager who made the remark about your resting face can talk reasonably at all, you may have the opportunity to tell him how hurtful his remark was and how it certainly would not make you want to smile more. He probably already knows it was a cheap shot and a mean-spirited thing to say. I hope he apologizes, but I doubt he will. Probably it will be up to you to find a way to feel more comfortable dealing with him—for your own sake.
I doubt that you will work at this job for a very long time, given that you are a younger person. Use this as a way to gain knowledge and skills about workplace interactions, so you can apply them now and in your future career.
Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how this works out.
Ask the Workplace Doctors
Dear Don’t Like Ugly,
Cruel talk! You don’t deserve that. Nobody does. Can you stop it? Maybe. Maybe not. But let me suggest two contrasting options for you—1. Approach this unhappy hurtful talk as a battle with evil guys or 2. See it as a learning experience.
If you saw it as a battle, you don’t say how you responded. You probably either retreated into your shell or you barked back an equally hurtful remark. And then you now can investigate what are the rules of talk by managers. Sometimes they are spelled out in policy books; other times they are unwritten and unspoken. But surely there is a head manager who wants your restaurant to make money and that is best accomplished when you have a happy smiling cooperative work gang. As a second stage of a battle you can report to the manager the ugly talk to you and ask that it be stopped. Or you can speak to those who have said your resting face is ugly and ask them to stop. Tell them it hurts and you don’t want to have to report it to the head manager. Such action might stop nasty talk, or it might result in more subtle ways of making your life miserable.
Therefore, before you decide to do battle, consider how you might treat this ugly talk as a challenge—learning from it.
1. See this talk for what it is—unkind and shameful behavior for your managers. They might have been made hatefully, to put you down to make themselves look good. However, let’s try to pretend the smile more and even the ugly remarks were made because they wanted your working life to be happier. Such an assumption can help you can learn from even cruel impoliteness.
2. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Were your managers right in saying you should smile more. Think about what makes you smile. So SMILE. Do you like yourself more when you smile? Were they right that when your face is at rest, it is ugly? DON’T SMILE. Do you like yourself less when you are not smiling and see your face as ugly? Think also about how you would want to smile more if your coworkers and customers were to smile at you. For example, research has shown that waitresses receive bigger tips if they had a flower in their hair.
3. Talk about talk. Talking about how we might talk more effectively tends to clarify who should be doing what, when and how. It helps spell what makes us feel good about each other and makes us want to applaud. And it enables us to set forth the rules that tells us that yelling and ordering are less effective that asking and requesting.
More could be said about seeing this as a learning experience, such as cultivating a duck-back mindset. By that I mean to shed what isn’t kind, like water falling off a duck’s back. I’ll say no more, other than to ask how you react to these suggestions. Feel free to tell us what you will try. For now think through this final signature sentence: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.
Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about if it is legal for an employer and employee to be texting.
If an employee and employer were texting each other for 2 months day and night, is that a legal issue for the employer?
Signed, Legal Curious
Dear Legal Curious:
Our disclaimer suggests that we don’t answer legal question. Even a legal answer to your question might be “It depends.” An attorney could provide you an answer in light the context of the situation and size of the workplace. For example if the employer was married and his spouse made the affair cause for divorce, that could cost the employer dearly.Why do you ask? What is your position in this situation? How do you know the texting is day and night and is in fact an affair? If you are one of the parties doing the texting, you have a lot to think about should an affair of a superior and a subordinate sour. That could affect the reputation of the company if sexual harassment were charged. If you are an employee who has work dumped on her because of the affair, you resent that. If you are a stockholder or partner in the company, you too have worries because certainly the quality of product and/or surface can suffer resulting from the distraction of an affair of employer and employee. This is not to say all workplace affairs never bloom into meaningful relationships.
The important thing for you to do is to think about why you care and what is your stake in this situation. Then it is equally important that you avoid making assumptions with inadequate information . If indeed you have a stake in the company, you are at risk. Finally, you had best look in the mirror and ask if your concern is one of good will, any of our business or if you wish those two individuals ill will. I’m sure you know that whatever are your answers, you should remember that gossip about this sort of thing can do no one good, including yourself. So remember the rule not to say something about someone you have not and will not say to him/her face-to-face. My signature: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS does not mean an affair between an employer and employee is that kind of wego.