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I've worked with an engineering consultancy firm for a little over 2 years now, on a team of approximately 15 people. I’m one of three graduates on the team and there’s one guy (we’ll call him John), who has been with the company for ~6 years and is the next grade up. It’s more or less John’s responsibility to “look after” us by delegating work, showing us how to do specific tasks, etc.

It took John quite a while to come out of his shell. Having been the youngest on the team by quite a margin for a few years, I think the arrival of three bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates quite upset his work dynamic. He slowly opened up to us more, joining us on trips to the pub or joining us for lunch, and he actually admitted he was happy that we’d started as he now had people of a similar age to chat with. As he got more comfortable, he started ‘bantering’ more and more, joking that he thought our new haircuts were ugly, that our shirts didn’t match our trousers or that we looked particularly ugly one day. It was funny at first and believe me, he’d get back just as much grief as he’d dish out. As time has gone on, I feel as though his jokes are getting increasingly personal, and I’m starting to have a hard time seeing the funny side.

I have psoriasis, which I’m very self-conscious about to begin with – it’s not as bad as it could be which I’m thankful for, but it does mean I can have quite inflamed/dry skin. Last week alone, he commented on the appearance of my skin 3 times in a jokingly/insulting manner. This isn’t just a one off either, it’s the same every week. When he would joke about our outfits or our hairstyles I could laugh it off knowing it was just a joke, but when he brings up the condition of my skin it makes me feel so embarrassed, ashamed and aware of what I look like. On a recent staff night out I confronted John saying that his jokes are starting to genuinely upset/anger me, to which he responded that he could tell they were, he was sorry, but he just “couldn’t help it” and that “it’s just the way he is”. He insisted that he thought fondly of me and felt bad about how he’d made me feel.

When in the office, I’ve been trying to distance myself from John, in an attempt of reverting the relationship from a friendship back to a professional one. My thinking was that this would discourage him from directing any further jokes towards me. Although, my recent workload has resulted in me having to work one-on-one with John and sure enough, the jokes have creeped their way back in.

It’s at the point where I no longer look forward to coming into work on a morning, and am considering looking for work elsewhere (which is a shame because I really enjoy this job usually). I’m not sure how I can go about addressing this issue without completely disrupting the team’s work dynamic and causing a fuss. John is quite close with our line manager (we’re generally quite a close-knit team), having worked with the company for a considerably longer period of time so I feel as though I can’t approach them for advice on the matter. I also think involving HR would be too extreme. I’d approach John directly again, but this proved useless last time.

Ideally, I don’t want to have to change jobs just to avoid one person, but my patience is wearing thin. How can I deal with John so that he stops making personal jokes about my appearance?

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    Does John know this is a medical condition as opposed to you just having 'dry skin'? It is possible that he would behave differently if he realised it was more serious. I would compare it to making fun of someone having burn scars etc. Might get through to him a little more. – Uciebila Feb 11 at 10:55
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    Just to make sure, you'd like him to stop the jokes on your appearance due to the psoriasis, but you would still be ok with him joking about your clothes or hair ? – MlleMei Feb 11 at 11:21
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    This might gain more appropriate answers on the Interpersonal Skills site since this seems to be more of an interpersonal issue than a Workplace specific issue. – Snow Feb 11 at 11:50
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    @Snow , hmm, I don't see that in the slightest. If "you tease me" about a medical condition, that's just a personal hassle. in the workplace, it has dramatic, indeed drastic, legal consequences. – Fattie Feb 11 at 12:14
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    Is there a possibility that John is awkward, and doesn't know how to interact? From the sound of it he might be in a position where he wants to interact, but doesn't know how to, causing him to force "jokes". – hat Feb 11 at 13:42

12 Answers 12

120

By the sounds of it, John is just under-educated on your condition and genuinely is just trying to have a joke on with you.

Personally I wouldn't try and look for new jobs but try talking to John.

Pull him over for a chat again and say

Hey John, I don't know if you know but I have psoriasis which causes the look of dry skin. I don't mind when we joke on about other things but I get very self conscious over my condition. I would appreciate if you didn't comment on it or make jokes.

Repetition is the way that he's going to understand that you genuinely don't like it.

If this doesn't work or at least decrease the amount (will probably continue to decrease over time) then I would talk to your manager rather than quitting your job. Just because they're close doesn't mean that your manager won't talk to John about it.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 12 at 5:16
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    Yes. Persistence is a key here. If John will constantly get explanation that his jokes on this subject is not funny he will gradually learn not to joke about this topic. – talex Feb 12 at 11:10
  • Having pointed out that it's a medical condition, it may be effective to joke with him that he's literally "mocking the afflicted." It has to be a joke, though. – T.J. Crowder Feb 12 at 11:25
  • While educating him on his condition might help... it really has nothing to do with the situation. He's not just trying to joke with him. OP has already confronted him, his friend has acknowledged that he is making him uncomfortable, and yet he continues to do it. – JeffC Feb 12 at 15:14
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    I would suggest also indicating reciprocation, so that John can't take the side of "well you joked about ___ that I don't like" which can happen. Maybe adding something along the lines of "If there is anything I have joked about that bothers you, I am sorry and please let me know so I can avoid that in the future as well". A little reciprocity goes a long way in conflict. – Daevin Feb 13 at 16:01
60

There are several ways to deal with this, you can chose one.

MY METHOD

Now, before everyone grabs the torches and pitchforks in the comments, I'll preface this by saying this approach is not for everyone, and you need a thick skin to do this...

I make fun of my various problems. I'm hearing impaired, autistic, and have a few other things going on. I joke about these things constantly. For me, this makes me more comfortable in my own skin, and also sends out a clear message that people don't have to walk around on eggshells around me.

If you take this approach, simply make better jokes than John does. "oooh, nice try John, but you could have said... [Better joke] Again, if you're not comfortable with this approach, don't try it.

THE DIRECT METHOD

Simply pull John aside some time and be a bit more blunt than you were.

John, I have absolutely no problem with you joking about anything else, but this is absolutely crossing the line. If you wish to stay friendly with me, you will stop this, and you will stop this now. You can so "help it", and I will not be your stepping stone to popularity. Do not continue this.


IF THIS CONTINUES ON THE JOB

Be direct and to the point.

John, I have warned you repeatedly. I want to keep this between us. Keep this up, and I will have to involve others.


START A PAPER TRAIL

If this needs to go to management, or worse, HR, you will need more than "John is being mean to me" to get any action. You are going to need proof.

Document! Document! Document!

Start a log, write down what he says to you, and what you say in response.

Start writing emails:

John, as per our conversation, I want you to stop referencing my medical condition in your jokes. It is both unprofessional and insulting.


LAY IT ON THE LINE

In short, if he persists, make it clear to him that there will be consequences. If you cannot fire back and joke around like I do, then you need to nip this in the bud and be clear and forceful in your pronouncements. If he won't stop for YOUR sake, then make it clear he needs to stop for HIS sake.

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    That is true - he can 'help it' if he wants to. – thursdaysgeek Feb 11 at 17:50
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    Aaah, the true and tested Cyrano de Bergerac method (1st one). Best delivered while in a sword duel. – Gabriel C. Feb 11 at 18:16
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    @GabrielC. I once frustrated a customer so much by doing so that he left in anger and without recourse. How could he complain that I heaped more abuse upon myself than he could have hoped to inflict himself? His day was ruined knowing he could not ruin the day of someone else. – Richard U Feb 11 at 18:23
  • One thing. Start documenting NOW. Include in the documentation the discussions with him: date, time, content. When (and note well, I think the correct term is "when", not "when and if" - you've already talked to him and it hasn't worked) it has to be escalated, you want as complete a record as possible, INCLUDING the fact that you have already tried to work the problem without involving HR. – John R. Strohm Sep 23 at 20:58
10

Questioning just the one aspect of your regular banter that concerns you will be much harder than questioning the banter as a whole.

When you adopt an outside perspective, asking John to stop making fun of your skin might look like prohibiting others from making jokes about you but still being allowed to make jokes about others. Instead, you should ask all your friends to stop any insulting jokes.

I propose meeting with all your friends and explaining your concern. It can be as simple as

Hi guys, I don't know if anyone noticed, but I feel like our jokes have become more and more insulting.

Don't blame anyone, just state the fact so they can think about it and become aware of the problem at hand.

Over the last weeks, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the bantering we do. We're all colleagues, but we are friends, too. I don't want to insult my friends and make fun of them, just like I don't want to be insulted anymore, even if you don't mean it that way.

A very effective way to let others see your problem is to talk about feelings. This induces empathy and makes others understand why you have a problem with the bantering.

Although we all joke and laugh about each other, some of those jokes have actually hurt my feelings and I suspect that I might have hurt your feelings as well sometimes. Again, we are friends, we shouldn't hurth each other deliberately.

Give your friends time to reflect on their own feelings. Maybe they feel the same but haven't found the courage to speak up yet.

Now, most importantly, when you want your friends to discontinnue a certain behavior, you should offer an alternative. The best way is to discuss this together with them, but you can also offer your own solution:

I don't want to stop all the fun, but I ask you all to choose different topics to make fun of. There's nothing wrong with laughing about mismatched socks, but what we've been doing feels a lot like shaming to me. I'd rather laugh with you than about you.

So let's rather talk about yesterdays TV show or game or [enter personal favorite topic here].

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    I like this because it creates an opportunity for others. Frequently, harassers reduce the opportunity for the target to react by focusing on an individual at a time and moving quickly from one individual to the next under the guise of "fun" camaraderie. Providing time and opportunity for others allows people to realise what's happening and that they're not alone, so they can think more rationally about their likes and dislikes and have an opportunity to voice them. It's entirely possible that noone likes it but they felt they needed to let it happen because they thought others liked it. – tudor Feb 12 at 0:12
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Clear, red lines.

The other answers allude to this, but don't spell it out. We humans understand the concept of boundaries. You need to mark out in absolute clarity where your boundary is, and then defend it vigorously. This is how you train animals, and it is how you train humans. Clarity is the primary concern.

The talk you need to have with John is the simple part:

Hey John. Listen, we all joke about this and that. But here's a thing: I have a medical condition with my skin. That's why jokes about my skin are off-limit. No exceptions, no "but"s.

The difficult part is to enforce the boundary once you set it.

The best way that I've found in my life is that a boundary violation requires an immediate, clearly visible state change. The exact reaction depends on the context. But pick a consistent element and vary it. In your case, since these things happen in the context of bantering, as soon as someone (John or someone else) crosses the boundary, the fun is over. Wipe that smile off your face, get serious, stop joking yourself. Make it clear that you are now in a different space. Disengage from the joking, or from the people, or both.

You can, for example:

  • answer in a serious, absolutely-not-joking-anymore voice: "That's not funny anymore."
  • stand up and leave the room, table, whatever
  • simply turn away and return to your work

The important part that you communicate, verbally and non-verbally, is that a line was crossed. Like a border, it may have been only one step too far, but you are now in a completely different country with completely different laws. That must be clear.

This generally gets anyone in line who is not a bully, i.e. taking pleasure from your discomfort. Normal people will (often unintentionally) test the boundary once or twice, but then they get it. Bullies enjoy boundary violations, but then we're in a different territory and from your question it doesn't seem that John is a bully.

  • +1 Maybe it's just the Australian in me, but I want to add a suggestion to 'answer in a serious, absolutely-not-joking-anymore voice': "John, I've asked you to stop making fun of my medical condition. Now F&(# Off!" in a voice loud enough to be heard by colleagues, but not customers. Sometimes you just need to bring out the sledgehammer. – mcalex Feb 13 at 4:13
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    I disagree. It should not be about what you asked, but about what he said. And when you want to put someone in the wrong, never put yourself in with them. – Tom Feb 13 at 5:28
  • Yelling is never required. They are not your kids or dog or property. We‘re all adults. Telling one to fuck off is fine, yelling is not. – morbo Sep 25 at 16:42
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"Joking" about a medical condition is serious.

Conceivably, it could lead to action against the company.

(If you think about it, it's one step from joking about - say - anxiety, or another mental health issue.)

I think on balance, since that's the case, really you should just firmly explain it to a manager or HR.

Anyone who doesn't understand that psoriasis is a serious, whole-life issue - the definition of a non-laughing matter - quite simply needs to be taken aside by an authority figure and have it explained.


BTW. Say we "set aside" the fact that John is millimeters away from joking about a mental health issue. So John is "just" teasing about clothes etc to juniors below John. This is totally, completely unacceptable in a professional workplace.

Again, really a more senior experienced professional needs to take John aside and explain things.

Note that,

"[John said] he just “couldn’t help it” and that “it’s just the way he is”. He insisted that he "thought fondly of me" .. etc

this sort of psychobabble from John indicates that John is, very simply, totally immature. He needs a talk from more experienced professionals.

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    "particularly if this is USA" OP has clearly tagged this united-kingdom, so there is no need to make any assumptions about that. – a CVn Feb 11 at 12:29
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    An excellent point thanks - the UK is equally as touchy about mental health in the workplace (if not quite as litigious). – Fattie Feb 11 at 12:32
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    From the start of OPs explanation it seems they were quite friendly/fond of John. I don’t feel like getting HR and getting him in trouble would be the first point of action if it can be conveyed in any other way – Twyxz Feb 11 at 12:48
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    @Twyxz it's not the first point of contact - OP has talked to John about it, to no effect. – lukkea Feb 11 at 12:52
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    @Twyxz , hmm, these days you simply can't joke at juniors about a mental health issue in the workplace. Anymore than you can, say, make sexual remarks to a junior female, or racist remarks to someone. In those cases, the defense "oh, I was friendly!!" is a non-starter. In short, the idea of joking about psoriasis is just totally beyond the pale. HR needs to shut it down totally. – Fattie Feb 11 at 12:52
2

If talking to him in private doesn't work (I like the answers on that approach so I won't elaborate) and you don't want to go to HR, you could try this. When he makes one of these jokes around others, say in a slightly elevated tone of voice - firm but not hostile - "John, I've asked you repeatedly to please stop making fun of my medical condition." There's just no way he doesn't come off looking like a complete ass in front of everyone, so if he has any social awareness at all this should become a very uncomfortable situation for him, rather than for you. On the other hand, if he doesn't have any such awareness this will not work.

If you're thinking this would be too awkward, could it be worse than the shame and embarrassment you feel at these jibes already? Good luck, whatever you choose to do.

2

You have reinforced this inappropriate behavior by laughing at his "jokes." You can use the behavioral concept of extinction to gradually stop it. Don't laugh, don't react at all when he makes fun of you or anyone else. Pretend like you did not even hear the joke. If that's awkward, just do a "well anyway" kind of segue into some work-related topic. If he does something you appreciate, like greet you politely, do respond to that in a fashion that rewards that behavior. It is simple classical behavioral conditioning and sometimes does work in situations where direct confrontation does not.

2

Sounds like you’ve already did the most crucial step. Communicate that his joking about that specific thing is not okay.

Since he insists on making you uncomfortable now that he is totally aware that it is, this is bullying and harassment and they are creating a hostile work environment. Its time for you to take it up to management and if management doesn’t comply, take it to their manager.

Every one gets in line once their job is threatened. You’ll be surprised. Email your management about this co workers behavior to create an indisputable paper trail. Include the fact that you’ve spoke to this person and they insist on making derogatory comments towards your health creating a hostile work enviro for you. Management will the be forced to act and you have a time stamp on everyone’s actions.

Now as far as your “colleague”:

  1. He’s an adult- He totally understands he’s crossing the line and it sounds like he’s feeling a bit insecure when you’re around that’s why he’s giving you hell even after you asked him to stop. You letting him know you’re not his psychological punching bag was awesome and enough. The fun part about this being an adult is that you don’t need a “second talk”. Trust me. They more than get it the first time.

  2. The passive aggressive “letting everyone know in the office it is not okay” is ridiculous. Everyone else in the office doesn’t do this so why should they be reprimanded? Everyone else is aware that it is inappropriate so why should they be reminded? Going for the direct source first and ONLY the direct source is ALWAYS best. And you’ve done that. If you want to just “poke” around, make a public example of the bully and him to stop in front of as many co workers as possible for “witnesses” and then send the email. (This scene is not needed.. you can just send that email BUT this will make a spectacle of him and his harassment).

  3. Don’t do the “If you can’t beat em, join em” stuff. That’s not who you are as a person so there’s no need to replicate the actions of someone who is less than favorable. There’s more power in standing in your beliefs and objections instead of oddly joking away you health conditions.....

So yea! Send that email bro. You did the hardest part there is.

1

There are a number of reasons why John is doing this, but most like it is coming from an insecurity of his own. There are also many ways to approach the problem many of them won't work but all you need is one that will. So don't give up trying it is important for your own self esteem to find your confidence and be able to learn how to take control of situations like this.

I would say first you need to get over it, basically you can't let him see that what he is saying and doing is effecting you and the best way to do that is know your own worth and value and that though you may have challenges you rise above them. Politely don't laugh at his jokes if you don't think they are funny. You can be polite and still not have to endure an uncomfortable situation.

You know so much can be said with just a look, I practice this stone cold "I'm very unimpressed" look. Straight mouth, empty eyes and the look lasts just a little to long to be comfortable, like your think of stuff but your not going to share your thoughts. I find it really unnerves people but they don't know what to do about it. If there is a come back to the look practice a Spock like eyebrow raise, then turn away.

Another approach is offering as much consistency that he does you have to prepare yourself that this might take time but that you will be relentless. You will just need to remind him that his comments are inappropriate and hurtful, you may need to do this more than once or twice you may even feel that you need to make a habit of it, but always stay calm and polite, you can fine other ways to let him know that what he said was inappropriate. "John how do you think that make me feel, when you say stuff like that?"- also be prepared for negative come backs because he might try to save face but don't encourage his desperation.

The most important thing to anything you do is be patient, be calm, be precipitant, know that you are not just doing this for yourself but for John as well. You will be helping him become a better person, he may learn to start thinking about things before he says them, and you will save someone else from his inappropriate comments in the future.

Good luck and know that you are so much more than what John thinks.

1

The only way of dealing with it is to be confident and consistant. Have more one-on-one talks, every time tell John, that don't want to hear such kind of jokes, because they're not funny and insulting. And that you understand, that he's a such kind of person and it may be not so easy for him to stop joking, but he should stop it, because you don't want to here all this things anymore.

0

Have a plan

Regardless of whatever you say and regardless of whatever John tries to change, there are going to be slip-ups. There are always going to be moments where an inappropriate joke comes out of nowhere, and you are going to have to react. If you don't have a plan, you may freeze up. People in that situation tend to get nervous, act inconsisently, and look to others for cues. None of these will help you assert yourself and all of them will hinder your efforts to help John become a better person. They're bad for you; they're bad for him.

So plan ahead. What are you going to do when he slips up? I suggest:

  • Have a simple sentence ready to go.
  • Use it consistently, like clockwork.
  • Plan your body language too. Practice if you have to. Do not send mixed signals.
  • Keep it short and easily understood.
  • Talk somewhat down to him. I rarely recommend this, but it's appropriate in this situation. You are the adult in the room.

Some examples:

"Inappropriate." Delivered with a look of digust.

"John, we talked about this." Delivered as if you were his mother.

"Maybe we should talk about your former membership in the Twilight fan club [or other embarassing detail]." Best delivered with a grin. This is a little over the top but the point is to immediately turn the topic to something he doesn't want talked about either.

Having a cue like this will help John condition himself not to be inappropriate, and to shut it down immediately if he slips up. Neither of you should want a long discussion; just let it drop right away.

Have an escalation plan

Sometimes John will be drunk and not react to your plan as he is supposed to. For example, he may double down in order to try to save face and tell even more inappropriate jokes. In these cases, you need a backup plan, where you escalate your feedback to him one notch higher.

I suggest standing up, taking him aside, and using a more stern voice.

"John, this has to stop."

"If this keeps up, we're not going to be friends any more."

You final escalation plan

There's always a chance the escalation plan won't work. You need a final plan; otherwise, you might melt down and feel very foolish afterward.

The most basic plan is to simply leave. This will leave a very strong impression, and I promise you, John will think about it. It also allows you to maintain poise.

This is for you too

The point of this exercise is not just to help John behave appropriately but to help you feel like you are in control. There is nothing wrong with you and you should not act like you are ashamed of anything. So it makes sense that you should react with confidence.

Remember: You are the adult in the room.

-2

You should start by saying: "John, this is a medical condition and you are being inconvinient

Not to say: stupid, dumb, an assh* ... well, enough. It's time for a one-on-one with John... Be polite, but make sure he understands you are coworkers , NOT brothers, nor friends. Even true friends don't behave like that.

And plus:

When in the office, I’ve been trying to distance myself from John, in an attempt of reverting the relationship from a friendship back to a professional one

Maybe the problem has started right here. Myself, i don't think we should have any kind of "friendship" with coworkers. Friendship is something you will only find in your time of need. Has John ever extended his hand to you ? I'm not talking about work... That's what i believe. But that's me...

  • 2
    This is all completely correct. You look at the guy and say "This is a medical condition." The idea of making fun of psoriasis is total madness. – Fattie Feb 11 at 12:55
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    "Make sure he understands you are coworkers [...] not friends" - this is bad advice, as it is clear (e.g. in the quote you gave) that they have in fact developed a friendship. Also, "inconvenient" is a bit of an odd choice of word. I would replace that with "inappropriate" or something similar. – Jon Bentley Feb 11 at 13:47
  • " Myself, i don't think we should have any kind of "friendship" with coworkers." This is pure opinion. "Has John ever extended his hand to you ?" The thing is, in the UK, this kind of teasing is very much a sign of friendship. Bringing a medical condition into it is definitely going too far but all the other teasing the OP mentions is very normal in the UK. – Meelah Feb 12 at 16:01
  • Yeah @Meelah But just to clarify the stuff, what i meant by "Has John ever extended his hand to you ?" has nothing to do with shaking hands... I meant: did John ever stand by you, in your time of need ? For me, that's friendship. But yeah, this a matter of opinion. – wes85melis Feb 12 at 16:06

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