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I was on-call last night with a coworker. I was wearing a bit of makeup, and at the end of the call, he comments "omg haha are you wearing makeup?". I said oh its for such and such. And, he responds with "oh good you still make an effort".

This doesn't feel like direct harassment but it was also pretty uncomfortable and awkward. I'm unsure what to do in this situation. I've thought about it, and am thinking of different approaches:

  • Talk to him directly.
  • Bring it up with HR
  • Talk to management

I am the youngest on the team and he is probably around 7 years my senior. This is the first time its happened, so I want to make sure I take the right action.

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Since this was the first time that happened, I'd just let it slide.

It's perfectly possible that after your conversation your co-worker thought "Hmm, wecanfibonacciit didn't laugh at my last comment. It might have made her uncomfortable. I'll make a mental note not to do that again." Mistakes happen, and people sometimes don't realize immediately that what they thought was a light-hearted joke made someone else uncomfortable.

If it happens again, I'd call him out immediately and tell him explicitly what you want him to change. It might be wise to think about this in advance and prepare a reply. I'd probably say something like: "I don't like these kind of comments, please don't do that again."


mxyzplk mentioned the following related question in the comments:

The details of the situation are slightly different, but Lilienthal's accepted answer does a very good job of comparing the different approaches - definitely worth reading!

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    This is the correct answer. Mentioning it in passing on the next conversation isn't bad either, but anything beyond that like a formal CYA-looking e-mail is just overreacting and generating at some level bad blood and souring the working relationship. You could argue that the coworker generated the bad blood himself, but what this answer highlights and I think is important to take into account is the very real possibility that the coworker realized his mistake on his own. – Agustín Lado Feb 15 at 15:49
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    Yes, mistakes do happen, but this also applies to the person interpreting the comment too. I agree with you that the correct action is to let it slip, but I do not think it's correct to say it's because they made a mistake. I think in this internet age we forget how difficult real conversation can actually be. We don't have the luxury of proof reading our words multiple times before we say them, we can't reasonably stop to think "is it possible this innocent comment is going to be taken the wrong way". Too easy to place blame on the speaker, when it may be yourself that is at fault. – musefan Feb 15 at 15:54
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    @mxyzplk I don't agree. Confronting somebody carries a cost to your relationship with them: maybe not a significant or permanent cost, but it puts strain on the relationship. I don't call out every awkward interaction or slight I receive from coworkers---this is not the way to make friends in the workplace. Letting this go doesn't preclude taking action later if the comment was the opening salvo in a pattern of misbehavior, rather that one innocent comment phrased poorly. – user168715 Feb 15 at 20:37
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    @mxyzplk It is not conducive to good relationships to equate anything that makes you uncomfortable with 'misbehavior'. And it is rather confusing that you then suggest to make the other person uncomfortable in an attempt to resolve the fact that you yourself are uncomfortable. Both factors indicate your complete lack of consideration or empathy for the other person. – user122688 Feb 16 at 0:23
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    Does it have to be like OP should wait until a next time? Why not OP just say now to prevent a next time? Not just with OP but with other people – BCLC Feb 16 at 5:54
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Isn’t it completely obvious that this is related to COVID19? Most people have stopped putting on makeup, wearing nice clothes etc. because they are working from home and all the places they could go to are closed. Wearing make-up stands out in a positive way.

It’s pretty much like coming to the office in a dress shirt when everyone usually wears t-shirts. Or having your hair done in a special way. People would jokingly ask you if you are going to a job interview or on a date.

I think your coworker was trying to make you a compliment and start some small talk. Not insult you, flirt, or anything in-between. Of course I can’t know the facial expression, tone of voice etc. but it seems completely harmless to me.

If he keeps saying similar things and it makes you uncomfortable you can kindly ask him to stop.

But don’t make a mountain out of a molehill by bringing this simple, single, harmless comment to HR or reporting it to your (or his) manager.

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    +1, though it's worth stressing that it's unwise to be making any comments about a junior female colleague's appearance whatsoever (whether or not intended as an innocent compliment or icebreaker) given the historical and contemporary problems with sexual harassment in the workplace. – user168715 Feb 15 at 20:42
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    Yes. It does seem highly likely that the "oh good you still make an effort" was simply referring to the fact that we've all become a little less precious about our appearance since COVID hit. – Django Reinhardt Feb 15 at 23:03
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    Most of this answer minimises the asker's feelings, which is not very nice. Trying to explain what the guy was thinking might be fair enough (even if I might argue this should be outside the scope of this site), but "explaining" that the comment was basically fine and harmless and the asker shouldn't be offended is not. But I agree about possibly asking him to stop making such comments and not taking a single comment to HR. – NotThatGuy Feb 16 at 7:11
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    @NotThatGuy: Of course one can’t simply change how one feels. But you’ll only make yourself unhappy if you feel offended over tiny and even well-met comments. Confronting somebody over a well-met comment would even make it worse. If he does it a second time I’d try an off-handed “I’m already feeling insecure enough about my appearance, could you please stop commenting on it?” Only if that doesn’t stop it would I consider talking to my manager, HR etc. – Michael Feb 16 at 9:02
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    @Nij: In this case it was most likely a well-meant comment or compliment. It’s like somebody holds the door open for you and you go “He thinks I’m an invalid who’s unable to open a door by myself!”. Or somebody says “How are you?” and you go “Damn that nosy colleague asking about my private life!”. – Michael Feb 16 at 10:19
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Because of the ongoing corona-lockdowns, a lot of us (both men and women) are rolling straight out of bed to the computer still in our pyamas and having unwashed faces. So a positive remark about/to a woman still bothering to put on makeup could indeed very well be a 100 percent platonic compliment about you keeping composure in face of such circumstances. If you were a man your colleague might have complimented you about still bothering to wear a tie.

It might also have indeed been a (innocent) flirt. However also a flirt from one adult to another adult is not harassment. Flirts only become harassment when they keep coming after you stated that they are unwanted. So if the remark really made you uncomfortable, just do that. State politely but firmly to him that you don't want those flirts anymore. Only take further steps (his manager/your manager/HR) when he doesn't respect this wish of yours.

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    Your first paragraph is how I interpreted it as well. – Barmar Feb 15 at 20:50
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Send him an email, or a private chat. Tell him you didn't appreciate that comment. This memorializes what happened and allows you to set down your boundary. Then print a copy of that email or that chat log to keep for your personal records.

Just be careful how you phrase your message. Repeat what you heard, and then make your request. But do not call that remark sexist or anything like that. You can finish your message by saying: "And just so you know, some days I will be wearing makeup, and some days I won't be wearing any makeup. In either case, I don't like being called out on it, whether I choose to wear some, or whether I don't."

But at this point, I don't think this warrants bringing it up to HR, or to anyone else. This small matter should be handled privately.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Feb 16 at 12:44
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The answers so far seem to be pretty lined up along "it's clear sexism", or "what are you talking about". And matter of fact we do not know, because sexism does not exist in a vacuum. It's always about context.

From my point of view, the conversation had nothing inherently inappropriate. They did not say something like "that's hot" or "looks sexy", it was plain statements of fact.

So on to context. Personally, I feel weirdly out of place in a suit. I only very rarely wear one to work, basically only when I have to. So when I do, and a female colleague says "hey, that suits looks good on you", I feel positive and reassured going into that big meeting. But I can also understand, that there is a difference between me, being complimented on a rare occasion and a female getting unwanted compliments by dozens of people every day. That is the context I'm talking about.

So, whether this is out of the ordinary cannot be answered by just that one call. The question is, how are the other calls. Was the OP singled out? Was she subject to something the other team members are not? And I think the implicit experiences everyone has are reflected in the answers here, which is why they differ so much.

For my team, it would be perfectly normal to say "Bob, do I see this right, did you shave today? You got a date tonight or what?" You can like that or not, but in that context, with colleagues commenting on all other colleagues appearance, the OP seems to be inside the "normal" mark with the comments their colleague made.

For my team, the answers apply that caution the OP. Because if you self-select out of your peer group, if you are known as the one that you have to be careful around, you will end up in a very sterile environment where nobody really includes you into their group. It would be like bullying, except that they did not start it. You explicitly requested to please not be in on their banter and team dynamics.

For other teams, that do work in a more sterile and less jovial environment, requesting the colleague to stop that immediately and if they don't, involve management and HR might be absolutely appropriate.

My point is: all answers here are valuable, but the posters took their team environment as "the" absolute and only environment and wrote their answer accordingly. It is not. Your environment, your specific context matters.

Watch how other colleagues interact. Then decide whether this is something you need to deal with and which answer here applies to your situation.

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    I think this is the best answer and is along the lines of what I was thinking of writing myself (but just couldn't be bothered to do). This situation isn't something you can transcribe and expect others to answer for you. The OP should be evaluating the conversation by herself, in her environment. Accent, tone and emphasis will all play a part in understand what was actually meant, something we here do not know and should not assume. I will also say, anybody giving advice to punish that person when they have such little understanding, should never be asked for advice again! – musefan Feb 16 at 12:44
  • Something can be sexist and not be sexual. If the inappropriate comment that was said, wouldn’t be said to a coworker of the same sex, then it can be sexist. “oh good you still make an effort” is the inappropriate comment. Many females in my life have commented about using less makeup or no lipstick due to masks. The “you are making an effort” is the inappropriate comment IMO – Donald Feb 17 at 12:12
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    I'm not sure what you comment means. "If the inappropriate comment that was said, wouldn’t be said to a coworker of the same sex, then it can be sexist" isn't that my point? That we'd need to have knowledge about the environment to say whether it was okay or sexist? – nvoigt Feb 17 at 12:20
  • -1. The OP doesn't say "this was sexist," they say that it made them feel uncomfortable, and the entire extent of this answer was "well I guess you need to learn to take it." – mxyzplk Feb 17 at 21:03
  • In my state "well it's good to see you're still making an effort" is an awkward "let me back out of this conversation phrase by complimenting you while acknowledging that you aren't on your best today" That said, I've been in many other states. I can easily see how a person might read this statement as "you should do something different" As another person said, it's all about context. Make sure they know that in your context, such comments are not wanted, and then if there's a pattern of you still getting them with these complaints, it's clearly harassment. – Edwin Buck Feb 18 at 21:39
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I am a tech lead on an IT team which has male and female members, whom I manage. If you were to come to me with this complaint, it would actually work against you. If you told me that the problem is that it made you uncomfortable, that would be bad, as I believe the comment does not warrant that kind of feeling at all - I have had similar comments made to me (as male) when I have shared my video and was wearing something other than some kind of tracksuit, without any kind of malice.

Even if we were to assume that the comment is indeed worthy of making you uncomfortable, as a manager I would like my team members to be able to deal with minor (or even major) problems on their own. Meaning that I would expect you to mention to him, in private (or even in public, depending on the situation) that you would like him to refrain from those kind of comments in the future. That would show me that, even if you are a bit delicate, at least you can deal with what I would call basic social stuff.

But then, if you were to mention sexism or harrasment or any "red flag" word, the kind that could get HR or legal involved, that would be way worse, as that would make me think that probably I need to protect my team from you, and not the other way around.

My advice to you would be to not do anything, as you have mentioned that this is the first time it has happened, and I believe the comment is harmless and innocent enough. If it happens again, then I would tell them in private. And then, if it happens a third time, you may think about involving your manager or expressing your discomfort in public (such as the time when he makes the comment).

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Feb 17 at 20:22
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I'm a 70 year old male in NZ. Appropriateness will vary with culture and country.

I have learned over the decades that friendliness and positivity is increasingly liable to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and liable to get one in trouble.

While I understand that in the current climate it would probably be unwise for the coworker to have acted in this manner this I'd hope that involving HR would be not considered initially.
I'd interpret the comments as an awkward attempt to pay you a compliment in a light hearted way. There are a range of possibilities, but, assuming something along the above lines is unlikely to be harmful to you or them and may be far more positive longer term than assuming the worst.

IF something similar happens again I'd think that something along the lines of "I'd REALLY appreciate it if you didn't comment on my appearance" or "Comments like that make me feel uncomfortable" may be in order.

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Feeling awkward and uncomfortable is a side effect of life, but it is not always harassment.

There's a concept called "Mens rea" in law that is missing in how we deal with harassment. Basically it means the person's mental state somehow acknowledges that they know (or could deduce) that what they are doing is a crime.

In harassment handling, we often reject the idea of "Mens rea" claiming that a person need not know they are harassing another for them to be considered harassing another. While that makes it easy to disregard "but we've always done it this way" arguments, it creates new issues around when reporting harassment may itself be an act of harassment.

If you find commentary about your personal appearance unsettling, telling the commenter that you'd prefer if they not comment on your personal appearance again removes the idea that repeated comments are absentminded, where they don't know they're making you uncomfortable. That helps prove that the comments aren't part of normal office interactions, but are part of a plan to target you with the purpose of making you uncomfortable.

So, don't go to management. Go to the source. Tell him what you don't want to hear from him. Give him as much leeway as you desire, but when it is clear they aren't going to comply with your requests, then go to your manager.

After the manager talks to the person, if that doesn't work, then hire a lawyer, and provide him with a documented history of the times you were bothered, the times you replied you didn't like it, the escalation to management, and the failure for it to be resolved after escalating to management.

After the lawyer has all the details he needs, then go to HR. HR will not always side with the right party. HR will side with the party that costs the company the least amount of money. This is why you get your lawyer first, as unethical companies may solve the problem by reassigning you out of the way (or terminating you for fabricated reasons).

Remember escalating to management is no small thing. Compliance is usually forced on the individual by threat of firing him. That's a lot of power to change a behavior, expect hard feelings afterwards (but compliance). I've seen people escalate to management quickly for trivial items, and it has created some of the longest, deepest runs of resentment. I'd reserve escalating until you know the harassing person is aware they are harassing (or should be aware based on your feedback the comments are unwelcome and you want them to stop).

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  • I would add that the OP and co-worker were on-screen with each other. This close-up face time is unnatural in our normal day to day routines. The faces on the screen are often much larger than life and appear unnatural. As much as I hate it when someone comments on the fact that I shaved or cut my hair, I generally ignore it, unless the person explicitly denigrates my former appearance. – jwdonahue Mar 19 at 20:23
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If you are new to a workplace / team, and don't fully know your colleagues, please be very careful about judging someone negatively based on a few interactions. In fact, even if you think your negative assessment about someone is right, talk with other colleagues (about this person's personality and patterns of negative behaviour) to confirm it in case you are thinking of confronting them or complaining about them.

This doesn't feel like direct harassment but it was also pretty uncomfortable and awkward.

It may have been harassment. Or just someone having a bad day or someone with a quirky personality that said something inappropriate without meaning it. The reason you aren't sure is because you don't know this person well enough to judge him.

So, initially, perhaps you can give him the benefit of the doubt by considering various scenarios:

  1. He is a bully / pervert who gets off on harassing his juniors.

  2. He was trying to flirt casually with you by lightly making fun of you but it backfired. (The kind of flirting where you lightly put down someone, expecting a witty or light sarcasm back).

  3. He was trying negging on you.

  4. He lacks social skills and acted out nervously.

  5. He was just trying to make small talk and joked, and it backfired.

As you can guess, depending on the intent of the person, your feelings will differ on this matter. In general, if you know this colleague well, either through observation or regular interactions with him, you can make a pretty good guess of his intent based on his personality or past behaviour with you and your other colleagues.

If you don't know him well, then start to find out - talk with other colleagues and diplomatically enquire about his personality and behaviour. In fact, this is a good practice to do so with everyone you work and a valuable skill to learn - the better you know somebody, the better you can work with them.

Now, come back to your own feelings.

Based on his possible intent, do you still feel your initial feelings are valid? (Note that I am not saying you were wrong to feel what you felt - at that moment you may have indeed felt uncomfortable and awkward, and that is fine and normal).

(If you assess that your feeling may have more self-internal roots, you may also explore why that particular subject made you feel uncomfortable. And consider if it is something you need to work on yourself to be more confident.)

Only after you are clear about his intent and feelings, and your own feelings on the matter, should you think about the next step:

  1. Ignore (if you were mistaken or opt to, for now).
  2. Confront (request a change of behaviour).
  3. Complain (protect yourself, be on the offence).

If you opt for 2 or 3, remember to be professional and assertive. But if you opt for the 3rd option, definitely make sure to create a list of pros and cons first, especially if you will be up against a senior person.

Some of the obvious cons:

  • HR is not your friend. They exist to protect and serve the company, not its employees. (The bigger the company, the more true this is).

  • You may be tagged as a "sensitive" or "difficult" person to work with, by both HR and / or some of your colleagues. This may affect your appraisals and working relations.

(Of course, you know your country's and company's culture best and thus are the most appropriate person to decide to what degree are the above cons applicable for your place of work.)

In case you decide not to complain, but still want the matter to be on record, do it diplomatically. One way of doing this is to send an email to HR, describing the incident and the person involved clearly but also making it clear that you are not complaining but seeking their advise on the matter and that it be kept confidential (BCC a copy to your personal email ID too). If you are lucky, you may get good advise too.

So yes, basically my advise is that unless your working professional relationship with someone becomes really strained (e.g. due to bullying or sexual harassment), treat the matter as an inter-personal issue and try to resolve it assertively yourself. Go to the HR only as a last resort.

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    -1 how was he making fun of her? – MrE Feb 16 at 5:27
  • Yeah... commenting favorably on the fact that someone's wearing makeup isn't always appropriate, but it really doesn't count as "making fun of" or "negging". – Ben Barden Feb 17 at 16:36
  • The number of assumptions made in this post is simply astonishing. Did you mean to post this on a different question maybe? – Patrick Kelly Feb 17 at 19:15
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    @PatrickKelly The point was to address her main concern - she wasn't sure if she experienced harassment, but felt awkward and uncomfortable, and thus was confused how to handle it. I asked her to consider all scenarios simply because she is a newbie who doesn't know this person well. Judging someone senior wrongly, without an idea of their personality, is a sure way to harm your career. Moreover, she was feeling awkward and uncomfortable and that also clouds your judgement, and so it helps to think of it again when you are more comfortable. – sfxedit Feb 18 at 19:36
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    @sfxedit I must have misread the tone, that's a fair observation – Patrick Kelly Feb 18 at 19:57
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I completely(!) agree with Fattie's response above – you should discuss this behind closed doors with your manager, and/or also with HR. There are laws to be considered here, and one of the things that HR needs to do is to document incidents like this one to safeguard their own legal liability.

I would not speak to the co-worker directly – that's your manager's role. And, know that, even if you do not inform HR, (s)he must. However, you are legally protected from any and all retribution for exercising your legal rights.

Sometimes, people don't "stop and think" like they really should. Maybe this person's intentions were as pure as the new-fallen snow. But, he'll know next time that there'd better not be a "next time."

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  • Without talking to the coworker directly, the coworker won't know that their actions are making you uncomfortable. As there are so many cultures, backgrounds, and upbringings in an office, they may not even realize they're doing stuff you don't like. And, keep in mind that should any of this escalate, the first question that will be asked was "did you let them know you didn't want this?" If you can't say "yes", you look like a person trying to derail a career by bad mouthing someone to a boss, when 90% of the time you could have solved it immediately. – Edwin Buck Feb 18 at 21:10

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