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A certain co-worker of mine has a habit of placing his foot on my desk while conversing with me. My desk is an L shape and where he stands is not across the desk from me, but at the end of one of the legs. This makes me uncomfortable as his crotch is at a relatively close distance to my face. I cannot roll my chair back too far because the other leg of the desk and a wall are behind me.

The situation is further complicated because I am a woman and he is my direct superior. I honestly believe that he does not know it makes me uncomfortable. Nor do I believe there is anything sexual about the behavior. He is in his late fifties and I really think he is just used to a different 'time and place'.

I realize the most honest solution would be to directly confront him about the issue but in the past when I have done this it always results in this odd period that can last for days where he acts like he has been offended, mopes around, and generally avoids me.

I live and work in the US.

My questions are: Is it appropriate for someone to place their feet on your desk when speaking to you? Is it appropriate for a supervisor to place their feet on a subordinate's desk?

Any advice on non-verbal ways to indicate that this is an uncomfortable physical setting are greatly appreciated as well.

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covee your desk with stuff. – rpax Mar 11 at 11:36
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You could get one of those mechanical desks that rises to standing height when you press a button. See just how flexible he really is... :-) – user568458 Mar 11 at 15:08
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@PlasmaHH the fact that no-one could guess what someone with such a peculiar 1970s power pose habit would interpret as "playing Games" is precisely why this is a tricky question – user568458 Mar 11 at 15:09
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I've re-read this a good ten times and still cannot picture the situation. – Pharap Mar 11 at 22:52
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How about this one: "please do not place a foot on my desk"? – Salvador Dali Mar 12 at 9:12

11 Answers 11

up vote 126 down vote accepted

Tell him you like to keep a clean desk, and don't appreciate his shoe being there.

This is really not a strange thing to say. In fact, it's probably something I would say if someone were to start putting his shoe on my desk in the manner you described.

Yeah, it's still not going to be fun conversation, but it's a hell of a lot better than "your crotch is uncomfortably close to my face".

It's been suggested to put "stuff" on the desk. If this is really a consistent mannerism I strongly suspect it will simply be shoved aside, but you could try it. But do you really want to keep worrying about keeping "stuff" on your desk for the sake of this? What if you forget? Does this mean you're faced with another awkward situation? It doesn't strike me a viable long-term solution.

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36  
I like this suggestion the most. Putting your shoe up on someone's desk is unsanitary in the extreme - who knows what the gentleman has stepped in on his way to work? Thus, it would be an extremely natural thing to ask him politely to stop it, focusing on the unsanitariness instead of on his anatomy. – Stephan Kolassa Mar 10 at 8:20
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It seems incredibly rude in general to be putting your feet on someone else's desk, leaving aside the unwanted crotch proximity that results. – Tim B Mar 10 at 11:58
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I would probably laugh out loud and say "What you doing?" but I agree that a more diplomatic way of just asking him to stop doing that is the best approach. +1 – Todd Wilcox Mar 10 at 14:12
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@gnasher729, I'd suggest that if he continues after being told to stop, she should report it to HR as sexual harassment (which this almost definitely is), rather than cleaning the table in his view. – GnoveltyGnome Mar 10 at 17:13
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Feet on furniture not intended for feet is rude regardless of the cleanliness of those feet. I probably would have given him a look and asked him if he was raised in a barn, then said get your shoe off of my desk if he looked confused. @GemCer – ColleenV Mar 10 at 19:33

Your boss has a very strange power pose and is oddly flexible if he can get one foot on your desk and keep one foot on the floor.

You can:

  • talk to your HR department for advice. You don't have mention him by name or title. Do document when this occurs.
  • directly tell him his positioning makes you uncomfortable
  • strike a power pose too and maybe it'll scare him off
  • stand up when he enters your office/cubicle
  • as others have noted, put pictures and knickknacks on your desk so he cannot put his foot on your desk
  • sneeze violently and accidentally punch him in the family jewels (warning: could lose your job though it would be epic)

Does he do it to male employees too, just you or other female employees? Honestly, this is bordering on sexual harassment. My vote is for talking to your HR department for advice.

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57  
sneeze violently and accidentally punch him in the family jewels While amusing as a comment on the Internet, this is a really good way to get yourself on disciplinary action. Be the professional one. – Jane S Mar 9 at 23:39
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Your boss is an ass. I would recommend against punching him in the junk not because it will hurt him but, as the first person said, because it will probably have bad consequences for you. – NotVonKaiser Mar 9 at 23:57
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Come on do you really think punch in the family jewels was serious? – Paparazzi Mar 10 at 0:19
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I did say it as a joke. While you may feel the urge to do so, it does come with consequences. I could imagine if you did do it it would be very hard to explain. Boss: "She punched me in the nuts!" HR: "How did she manage to do that?" Boss: "Well I had my foot on her desk and my genitals were facing her.." HR: "...Why was your foot on her desk in the first place?" – jcmack Mar 10 at 0:38
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Your answer might benefit by ordering the recommendations by how much you recommend them, most recommended first. (This would put the joke at the bottom, as well, where it would demand less attention.) – jpmc26 Mar 10 at 1:23

I would stand up in that situation. If you are simply speaking to each other, stand and face him, and continue the conversation. If you need to work on a computer screen, for a short period of time you can do so standing up. But my guess is you're not working on a computer screen or you would just be able to stare at that and not have to deal with his body language.

If he reacts oddly when you stand, you could perhaps "cover" by offering him your chair, or by perching on the edge of your desk so that you're still sort of sitting. But staying in your chair while he manspreads at you is making you feel awkward, and rightly so. Stop putting up with it.

If talking out loud about his nonverbal behaviours upsets him (either because he's not really aware that he's doing them, or why, or because he doesn't like his deliberate activities not working) then fine, don't talk about them. But that doesn't mean you have to sit at your desk while someone looms over you and puts you uncomfortably close to their crotch.

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Is it appropriate for a supervisor to place their feet on a subordinate's desk?

No it's not. Putting your feet up in someone else's space is disrespectful at best. A male crotch display is an even more aggressive signal denoting dominance. This is not normal in a professional setting and shouldn't be tolerated.

As for a non verbal way to prevent it, my preference would be a verbal one. But on reflection you could put something on that part of your desk, or just push his foot off (got that suggestion from my wife just now).

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Pushing his foot off would be extremely unadvisable. Imagine if he falls and hurts himself... she'd be in deep trouble. That aside, actually touching/shoving someone would be even more unacceptable than putting feet on tables, where I live. – AnoE Mar 10 at 16:02
    
For one, calling it an aggressive display of dominance is an assumption. It could be that's how he sits with or without someone around. Also, putting one's legs up naturally shifts a person's body such that more of their waist is pointed upwards - not singularly their crotch, but their entire lower body. Second, that assumption is not worth physical contact, which I strongly disagree with. You should never put your hands on someone like that in the workplace. That shouldn't be tolerated. You risk injuring him. Remember, he's an older guy. – The Anathema Mar 10 at 16:38
    
it was my wifes suggestion, I bow to her knowledge as a woman in the workplace, but then again she has also been known to punch people for making unwanted advances, maybe it's a cultural thing, our women aren't shy. – Kilisi Mar 10 at 19:48
    
@TheAnathema I would ask verbally first before putting my hands on anyone, but the OP specifically asked for a non verbal response. It is a dominance signal, I don't care how he sits when he's on his own, when interacting with others you need to respect them. In private I may half lie on the couch with my foot up scratching myself and picking my nose, but when other are in the room I don't. – Kilisi Mar 10 at 20:53
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I did not read the suggestion as a hard shove. a hand approaching his foot will likely cause him to move it on his own. I'm imagining the social read being something like swatting it with a rolled up newspaper with an appropriately disappointed-parent demeanor. – Vynce Mar 12 at 22:55

Jcmack gives good suggestions. An additional idea? You could try starting with a non-aggressive but clear approach, "woah, dude. You're all up in my business. Gimme some space!"

If / when he does it again: "seriously. You're like all up in my business. I need some space."

Then if he is still tone deaf and does it again, stand up (so you're not in a passive position), and be direct. Calmly but firmly (and directly) describe the behavior and say how it makes you feel. "Greg, when you put your foot up on my desk, I feel like my personal space is getting cramped. Could you give me a little space?" Preferably do this when others are around to discourage him from doing or saying anything embarassing, and to give you witnesses.

Write down the date and time when you did each thing. If the above doesn't work, then talk to HR, with your dates and times in hand. He probably just needs a sensitivity training refresher. No biggie.

He probably doesn't even realize what he's doing or that he's making you uncomfortable, so be patient but firm. If he sulks, let him. Just because he's clueless doesn't mean you need to have his junk all up in your face.

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I agree, except for the part about "no biggie" if you have to talk to HR. In the US, if you even hint about sexual harassment to HR (and yes, pretty much anything uncomfortable between males and females is seen as such by HR) then it's "shields up!" Especially when it's between boss and subordinate. Better be prepared to take some heat. – Nolo Problemo Mar 9 at 23:34
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Dave (iNTG): you're right, of course. That's why I was careful not to use those powerful, career-ending words ("sexual harassment"). So far, all Gem would complain about is a dude crowding her personal space, and not respecting personal boundaries (and getting dirty shoes on her desk). As long as she doesn't mention crotches and male / female dynamics, then a discerning HR person will be able to read between the lines (that boss is making female subordinate uncomfortable), and can act appropriately without being compelled to bring a full inquisition. – MealyPotatoes Mar 10 at 0:23
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In what universe is "you're all up in my business" considered professional? – Andy Mar 10 at 2:35
    
The "non-aggressive" approach should work just fine if it's delivered in an informal tone and setting. Also, Greg is actually the good guy. It's Steve who's the scumbag one. – Marc.2377 Mar 10 at 2:39
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+1 for "You're like all up in my business". I appreciate the informality of this approach, gently putting this guy back in his box. – Boinst Mar 10 at 22:52

I suggest checking with female coworkers to see if he does the same thing with them. Or just stroll past other cubes when you see him go in and see if he's doing this same behavior with others (male and female). If he is then it's probably just a weird mannerism. If he's NOT, tell him to knock it off (nicely or not - your choice), start recording dates/times/etc, and if this really keeps up go to HR, knowing that it could blow up in your face. This is the kind of thing that I think (most) all males know NOT to do, and frankly it strikes me as harassment. YMMV. Best of luck.

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I don't like all those answers about being rude yourself. I don't think it has anything to do with gender either since this is just a weird way to be positioned.

I usually go with finding solution and be honest if he ask. I would offer him a chair every time, or stand up every time. If he ask, be honest, diplomatic and short "This position bothers me." or "I think better when we are at the same height".

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Yes, the behavior is inappropriate - in almost any culture. However, it is not clear whether he realises it is inappropriate.

I manage quite a few staff - both male and female - and wouldn't dream of behaving with them that way. Nor would I tolerate them doing that with me.

When I was fairly junior, I had a boss (3 levels up) come in, introduce himself (first time we'd met), sit down, and put both his feet on my desk. I looked him in the eye with a slight frown, looked at his feet for a moment, looked him in the eye again, waited about five seconds, and then swept his feet off my desk. He was notoriously bad with names, but I was one of the few people who's name he consistently remembered. To the best of my knowledge, he never put his feet on anyone else's desk again in the workplace.

Now, okay, I'm a male, and a female might not want to physically sweep his feet off the desk. However, the non-verbal bit, followed by a polite "would you please get your foot off my desk?" is quite reasonable. In hindsight, looking back on my situation, I'd prefer I'd done it that way.

If he persists with the behaviour, do the same again. But once only. Then raise it with HR. It is always better to genuinely try to sort out a situation directly first.

Behaviour you tolerate is behaviour you accept.

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A variation on the answers suggesting placing objects on the desk: try placing a tea tray on the area of the desk where the co-worker habitually places his foot.

Unlike knick-knacks, pictures, etc, this is not something that he would be likely to move out of the way before placing his foot on it - but if he does then go ahead and put his foot on it, it will most likely slip off the desk and probably up-end him too.

This may discourage his odd poses in future.

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I realize the most honest solution would be to directly confront him about the issue but in the past when I have done this it always results in this odd period that can last for days where he acts like he has been offended, mopes around, and generally avoids me.

  1. It is your desk.
  2. He is in your space, inappropriately.

By confronting him, you have done nothing wrong, so why should it bother you that he is upset that he has been called on such inappropriate behavior?

Would your mother not confront you if she thought it would make you mope around?

If you are not being rude or condescending I see no reason that you should acknowledge him acting like he is offended. He is offended, should he be, probably not, but that is not your problem.

Casually ask him (nicely) not to put his feet on your desk, there is nothing wrong with that request.

I would find it very unusual for someone to put one foot several feet off the ground onto my desk while standing in front of me like you have described.

Don't hesitate, the second he puts his foot up, interrupt him mid sentence and say very nicely "please keep your feet off my desk", don't raise your voice or anything, keep a steady tone.

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His behaviour is a dominance display, and IMHO has sexual dominance overtones. He sounds uncouth. I doubt a verbal approach would work as effectively as a non-verbal one to a non-verbal behaviour, so dind a non-verbal counter - here's one idea:

Have a largish, light object handy, a broad-rimmed hat would be ideal. As soon as he does the crotch display, pick the hat up and place it over his crotch while saying "I prefer not having to look at your crotch in such detail". Keep a neutral expression.

This will demean him, as it's almost a non-verbal emasculation and he won't like it, but being the neanderthal that he is, he won't show he doesn't like it.

If he removes it, put it back. If he repeats the behaviour in a later visit, just keep doing it.

If he closes his crotch by placing the crossing his feet on your desk, say "And by the way I don't like you putting your dirty feet on my desk".

Take charge of your space. Don't be threatening - alpha males don't like that. But don't be submissive, which is what you are right now - by not reacting, you're non-verbally saying "I accept you dominating/demeaning me in this way", which is reinforcing his sense of power. Let him know that in your space, you're in charge. Remove the power rush he gets and pretty soon he'll stop the behaviour.

He won't complain to HR (or anyone else) about you - even he must know at some level that his behaviour is appalling and he won't want to describe the situation to anyone.

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"He sounds like a neanderthal. I doubt a verbal approach would work, as speech didn't evolve till much later in the evolutionary process" -> You have a single short subjective descrption from one person and you feel comfortable making these sort of judgements? Sjeez. Judgemental much? How about assuming innocence until you hav, you know, actual proof that something more is going on (and even then, calling people a Neanderthal is totally inappropriate IMHO)? – Carpetsmoker Mar 12 at 20:51
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And to add injury to insult, your answer is also wrong as both Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens evolved from Homo Erectus in parallel. Neanderthals are not the ancestors of Homo Sapiens (although they did interbreed at least sometimes). Neanderthals used tools and were very probably capable of speech. The intelligence level of Neanderthals is a much debated topic but it's entirely likely they were roughly on the same level as modern humans. If you must use stupid slurs, then at least do it correctly. – Carpetsmoker Mar 12 at 21:00
    
As for the rest of the answer, it is needlessly confrontational and will most likely result in a damaged relationship, and possibly even termination. – Carpetsmoker Mar 12 at 21:01
    
@carpet I was going to call him a asshole, but I toned it down - I've only seen this kind of behaviour in comedy sketches. I left a little humour in. All that does detract from the efficacy of my propsed response, which if you disagree with that's your right, as it is my right to express – Bohemian Mar 12 at 21:03
    
@carpet there... all references to prehistoric organisms and their possible abilities removed. The core answer stands. – Bohemian Mar 12 at 21:07

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