How Can I Handle Gawking Without Being Rude?

Question:

I have been experiencing a mild but increasingly frustrating situation at my work place and am not sure how to respond to the inappropriate behavior without being rude myself.

I am often subjected to my peers at work gawking, ‘checking me out’ while I walk down the halls or go to the common areas of my company (such as the cafeteria). I use the term ‘peers’ because they are not actual co-workers that I work with on a daily basis or even know, just other employees.

I work for an extremely large contractor for a government center. Needless to say, there are thousands of employees on-site, so I usually don’t know the person behaving badly. The behavior is usually mild but it makes me feel uncomfortable being stared at just the same. The behavior includes men giving me the “elevator eyes – looking me over up and down”, turning around as I walk by to check out my behind or just flat out gawking at my butt or at me. I’ve even been walking up stairs before and had grown men stop and try to look up my skirt as I walked past them up the stairs (note – I know what you’re probably thinking and no, my skirt was not even that short as the length hit mid-shin.)

This type of behavior usually brings a scowl to my face but men seem oblivious to it. I am young, thin and not bad looking and also work in a field dominated by men (engineers); I believe this places me in a position where I tend to attract more attention so I am extremely careful to look very professional at work and not to wear revealing or provocative dress. I never wear skirts that hit higher than my knees and avoid tight or revealing outfits.

I am highly respected among my co-workers that I work with on a daily basis so I don’t feel like I am bringing this unwanted attention upon myself. I feel like I work hard and shouldn’t be subjected to men blatantly checking me out in a corporate environment. However, I also don’t feel like it is necessarily “serious” enough to report to HR, not to mention I would have to march up to the man in order to read their identification badge in order to report them.

I am very non-confrontational as well and the thought of calling them out for some reason embarrasses me as I am never sure what to say. My boyfriend says that I should just go ahead and call them out like “What are you staring at?” as that would probably embarrass the guy enough to not do it anymore or at least call his attention to the fact that he’s staring. However, actually calling them out on their behavior puts me in the uncomfortable situation of either looking like a “B….” and/or conceited. I am afraid that they’ll deny their actions and I will be the one who looks foolish for assuming they were checking me out. This usually keeps me silent and just looking down and suffering silently.

Please give me some tips of actions to take or advice on what I could say without being rude that could help remedy this uncomfortable behavior.

Signed,

Uncomfortable


Answer:

Dear Uncomfortable:

This is something you should share as a concern with your supervisor or manager. If there are thousands of employees there, you will not be the only female who is stared at. So, it could be there have been other complaints to HR that you don’t know about, and perhaps someone has identified specific people.

Consider doing a few hallway or stairway walks with another female so you have a witness to the situation. That way if there is a confrontation it won’t be your word against the person you think is staring at you. (If there are so many employees there, it would not seem you would ever be in a hallway or stairway alone with a man anyway, so having someone walk with you now and then shouldn’t be awkward or obvious.)

Ask other women if they have had problems and form a group who can complain together instead of you doing it on your own.

Find out if the hallways are under security surveilliance. If they are, the next time a situation occurs, note the time, and use that to give to HR so they can investigate who was with you in the hallway. They can find out, and the liability of a harassment situation will make it certain they will check into it.

Or, turn around and casually walk behind the person who stared at you, until he enters his office. Note his description, so if you make a complaint you can give that as a way to identify him.

Those are all options for handling it through formal channels. As for confronting someone who stares at you, I don’t see that saying something is any more rude than scowling at him. You don’t have to sound mean about it. Ask, “Why are you staring at me?” “Do I know you?” “What’s your name and where do you work?” Or, something else designed to let them know you have noticed. Or, if it is especially bad behavior, say, “Please don’t stare at me that way. I don’t like it.” Or, “If you stare at me again I’m going to report you.”

Even in a workplace of mostly men, it is unusual nowadays to have a large number of blatant situations such as you describe. If the situation is that out of control, it will help everyone for you to do your part to make it stop. It may be that many others are waiting for someone to encourage them to take action. That’s why I think you ought to talk to other women first.

Best wishes as you decide on a plan of action for dealing with this.

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.