Dirty Old Man In My Office

Question:

I have grown to hate my coworker so much that I want to quit. The mere sight of him makes me cringe, which is unfortunate because our desks face each other. He is old, nosy, annoying and if I wanted to- I could probably sue him for harassment. I am not easily offended, but I can not deal with this man.

When I started working near him I was nice and we would occasionally have conversations. I felt bad for him because he’s old and recently had a stroke. He obviously is still recovering from this, his speech is slightly slurred, he drags his foot a little when he walks and he constantly falls asleep at his desk.

For months, I have put up with unwelcome comments involving my looks, figure, intelligence and capabilities. He asks constant unwanted/needed questions about my personal life. For example, why my personal phone number wasn’t on the company calling list and when I told him no one needed it, he asked another coworker if they knew it. As I was planning a beach weekend for my birthday, he constantly asked me if I had considered going to the local nude beach. He made several requests for me to bring my bathing suit to work so we could go to the beach together. On several different occasions, I caught him looking at pictures of girls in bikinis on his computer – one time he showed me a girl (from behind) that he swore looked just like me. He memorized the license plate on my car and told me he had a better “personalized” license plate for me: DDG82- drop dead gorgeous 82 (82 is the year I was born). When I came back from vacation this summer he asked me if I had gone topless tanning. And most recently, after overhearing a phone call I had with my boyfriend about a Halloween party we were attending, he continuously asked me what I was going as- when I refused to tell him – he continuously asked why. I am really disgusted by this, I could give you many more examples but I think you get the idea.

At first I tried to be nice and treat it as a joke. That only encouraged him. Lately, I have been very dismissive, to the point where I will ignore him or tell him that I don’t want/need to answer his questions. Since I’ve been doing this, he’s resorted to pathetic attempts at attention by talking to himself out loud, tapping his fingers, making noises like he’s having a problem with his work and listening in on conversations I have with other coworkers or on the phone and giving his unwanted input.

I have told others about this, including management, and at first no one really took me seriously. The most common response was “Oh, well you know he’s harmless, right?” I really don’t care if he is harmless. I can’t stand looking at him and putting up with his pathetic attempts for attention. Management said they would move him to another part of the office but that has not happened yet. I’m reaching a breaking point where I am either going to quit or blow up on him the next time he makes any sort of comment.

I really am at a loss. Any advice is appreciated.

Signed,

Harassed


Answer:

Dear Harassed:

You have several options. One or all may be worthwhile to explore.

1. Contact an attorney and ask for a legal opinion about your chances of a civil lawsuit related to harassment. Be ready to write a statement about what you have tried to do, and about the lack of action by management. You will need witnesses if you have them, and enough documentation to show that you have talked to management without success.

2. Contact the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission of the federal government and talk to someone there about a legal action related to harassment in the workplace. This would also require that you write a statement with as much proof as possible about your efforts to make things better, and the refusal of your managers to help.

3. Write a letter to the HR section of your organzation, or higher, with the information you have given us, including witnesses and any other supporting information, and demand that action be taken immediately to stop the behavior. Not to reduce it or to make it slightly better, but to stop it altogether. I would suggest you say that you never again want him to speak to you, unless a supervisor is present, or if it is clearly related to work.

4. Go to work ready to stand up for yourself. If he says something inappropriate, say, “Stop it. I never again want you to ask me a personal question or to talk to me in that way. I’ve already made a formal complaint, and you may very well be hearing from my attorney, so I suggest you leave me alone.”

Or, if he is disruptive but not harassing in the former way, say, “Stop it. You’re disrupting my ability to work and I want you to stop now.” Then, report the matter to your supervisor.

You may want to adapt your responses to fit your own situation and work culture, but clearly, clearly you have been harassed in an overt and sexually oriented way. The only way I can see any mitigation for him would be if you had responded with encouraging comments and sought out his company during the day. Or, if managers had tried to stop him but you told them everything was OK. Neither of those seem to be the case.

You need to document what has happened, get names of witnesses if you have them, and insist on action that makes a difference immediately. Do not accept that anyone will “work on it.” Ask what will be done immediately, and emphasize that you will call a supervisor to the area every time your work is disrupted by inappropriate conversation, noises or actions. You may need to take time off until you can be assured you will not need to be in contact with him.

Keep a courteous, civil tone when working with those who are supposed to help you. Being mean or negatively confrontational will not be as effective as respectfully stating your case and firmly asking for help, without giving in or giving up. Be clear that you are not just irritated or frustrated, but that you are deeply offended, that you are stressful about it, and that you are feeling as though you may have to give up your job to get away from the harassment. Those terms are much more likely to get attention! Here is something to remember: If your co-worker hasn’t been disciplined organizationally for his behavior, your managers and supervisors haven’t done all they should do to help. In most workplaces the man would have been fired by now. I am usually inclined to see the other perspective in cases such as this. But, if what you say is true, there is no good spin to put on this situation. The co-worker has been wrong and your organization has not responded appropriately. Both of those things are not merely unpleasant–they are violations of federal laws related to harassment in the workplace.

Best wishes as you decide how to approach this. The main thing is not to back down or to let an apology be good enough as a solution. I’m confident you will find support at higher levels in your own organization. If you don’t, I’m equally confident you will receive support from those outside your organization. That may be where you want to start, even though it would require effort and determination on your part.

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.