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I’m the only female employee in my department, and I’m the youngest by at least 10 years.

There’s an older guy in my department (50+) who likes to crack jokes and talk a lot. The type who would make lame sexist jokes before an in-person meeting (think “wives belonging in the kitchen” kind of material) that people usually ignore. When I first started working here, I attributed it to the older demographic of the company and maybe a lack of social skills or etiquette. But it’s started to extend outside of staff meetings.

I don’t work with this man at all. We have completely different projects and don’t ever need to collaborate. We just have the same manager. I don’t talk to him nor do I want to. We have no rapport.

In the past, he’s made comments here or there along the lines of, “you look nice today” which was unsolicited but also not explicit, either. So I ignored it. But nowadays with the office reopening, he’s starting to excessively greet me. He will literally get out of his chair, walk over to my cubicle, just to say, “Oh wow, I’m so glad you’re here today!” And try to strike up a conversation. Which usually includes more of those subtly cringey but not exactly sexual harassment type of comments. I always try to end the conversation immediately and get back to work.

(He doesn’t do this to my male colleagues, of course).

Today he also decided to joke with the colleague next to me about, “Who is that good looking person in [my name]’s cubicle today?” Unfortunately, my colleague didn’t respond to help. I ignored him because I was caught off guard, actually doing my work. But also because I didn’t know how to respond.

It seems like over time he’s really been testing the boundaries of what he can say to me. And for me, this is the last straw. I do not want to tolerate being leered at by a coworker every time I come into the office. It makes me uncomfortable and try to get out of the office ASAP, which could be disruptive to my work. For him to come up to my desk unsolicited, unrelated to work.

How should I respond to him to make him stop? I’d prefer to avoid face-to-face contact or a phone call, as I don’t want to encourage him to engage further.

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I'd send an email, making sure that you keep a copy (perhaps even BCC to a non-work address). This is important, because it puts the conversation on record, so that you can establish that you made the request and what you requested.

Something like this might be appropriate:

Hi Bob, several times lately I've noticed you making comments about my appearance, both to me and to other staff. While this may have been meant well, it's not something I welcome in the workplace and I am asking that you stop doing this.

Thanks in advance - Jane.

To discourage other interaction, perhaps amend to something like "I need to focus on my work and I want to keep our interaction on a purely professional basis."

Key points:

  • Identify the problematic behaviour
  • Avoid stating assumptions about his intentions/motivations (even if you are very confident in those assumptions, it gives an easy opportunity for him to derail by arguing about things you can't prove)
  • Avoid getting too much into why you don't welcome this behaviour, because that again gives an opening for him to derail by arguing for why you should take this as a compliment. It's a natural human urge to want to justify and soften this kind of thing, but resist it.
  • Clearly state the desired outcome.

He's probably not going to like it, but that's not your responsibility. If he continues, keep a record of the occasions and raise it with his manager, noting the previous request and again keeping a copy.

Footnote: some of the discussion here has raised the possibility that he means well but is just socially clueless. There are plenty of socially clumsy people out there. There are also plenty of jerks who know perfectly well that they're making people uncomfortable but when called on it pretend to be in the former category instead.

A handy way to tell the difference between the two is to ask: "does he tread on the boss's toes as often as he treads on mine?" If that social clumsiness is only directed towards people who don't have the power to harm his career... yeah, it's probably not real. Speaking as somebody who does struggle with social situations, I can assure you that this doesn't magically go away when I'm talking to somebody who could get me a promotion.

If he is genuinely just socially clueless (which I somewhat doubt, given the "women belong in the kitchen" bit, but for the sake of argument...), then setting clear boundaries in plain language is a kindness, not an insult.

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    @q-compute Added some suggested wording for that in my reply. IMHO better to keep it all in the one request rather than let him cast it as moving the goalposts. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 18 at 1:52
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    @q-compute - I am not sure "not talking to you except when it's work-related" is a realistic outcome. That request sadly, will likely unfairly backfire on you, ignoring each other won't solve the underline social problem. – Donald Feb 18 at 1:52
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    @Donald just wondering why it would be unrealistic if he has a completely different speciality that does not overlap with the projects I work on? If he needs to talk to me about work matters, which is highly unlikely, that doesn't stop him from doing so. I just have no interest in enduring more of his "personality" for frivolous conversation that is either annoying or outright harassment. – q-compute Feb 18 at 1:54
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    @Donald yeah, the Geek Social Fallacies are unfortunately a strong force. I've suggested "I need to focus on work and I want to keep our interaction on a purely professional basis" as a slightly more diplomatic way of expressing this wish. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 18 at 1:56
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    Who cares what his motivation is... it’s the behavior that is inappropriate and should stop, the reason shouldn’t matter to the OP. – mxyzplk Feb 18 at 2:12
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A lot of guys who behave like this think that they are being "suave" when in reality this is simple lack of experience with women.

What's the quickest way to get this to stop?

Tell them straight up that this behavior is cringy. This serves two purposes:

(1) There's a very good chance they will stop out of sheer awkwardness (and the realization that this behavior isn't "hot" or "sexy" whatsoever).

(2) They might actually learn a little bit about themselves and how their actions come across to their peers, which may in turn help them improve their social skills.

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    It's hard to imagine that he's trying to be suave when I'm in my 20s and this guy is probably well over 50. To me, it seems like he thinks he can get away with it because of his seniority. I don't exactly appreciate advances from men closer to my age in the workplace either, but there isn't a power dynamic in those cases so it's easier to ward off. Also, my coworkers are aware that I'm married, not that that knowledge always stops people. – q-compute Feb 18 at 1:27
  • No... no... unfortunately that's where you're wrong. There are plenty of men his age who behave just like that. I have at least two in my workplace. Moreover, you said you're in your 20s. I don't exactly think there's a shortage of data suggesting that men of all ages gravitate towards women in their 20s. – James Feb 18 at 1:35
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    I didn't say there's a shortage of men his age that act like that. It's an unfortunately well-known phenomenon. Just that it is extra creepy from an old man, plus the power dynamic aspect. And whether or not men prefer younger women is irrelevant to the fact that it's inappropriate behavior from anyone. – q-compute Feb 18 at 1:39
  • @James Many men his age behave like that, yes. That doesn't mean that lack of experience is the reason. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 18 at 2:03
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    One thing I'd add to this answer is: Don't try to be discreet or quiet. The next time he says something inappropriate, be loud and clear that you don't appreciate it. Make sure someone else hears. Otherwise he'll probably just shrug it off. – DaveG Feb 18 at 2:04
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Unfortunately, my colleague didn’t respond to help. I ignored him because I was caught off guard, actually doing my work. But also because I didn’t know how to respond.

Good. I would continue to do this. I would also do what your colleague does which is ignore him.

How should I respond to him to make him stop? I’d prefer to avoid face-to-face contact or a phone call, as I don’t want to encourage him to engage further.

It's hard to say if he is specifically targeting you as it sounds like he's generally just cracking jokes with anyone. Perhaps it is best to simply ignore the person and when they do interact with you, state that you are only interested in work related conversations and do not want to discuss anything else.

If he continues to talk about non-related work items, then do what Joe said in the comments. Tell him point blank, and directly that you are not interested in this conversation and tell him to go back to his desk/work area. If he fails to do this or becomes hostile, go to a manager and discuss this. Tell them the person keeps cracking jokes that you do not find amusing and it is causing you to lose focus on your job.

Do not be afraid to do this. It sounds like you're fearful that the person might become hostile or retaliate but that is not going to be the case. If they do, they're going to get into some big trouble as it sounds like everyone else is just as tired of him as you are.

Which usually includes more of those subtly cringey but not exactly sexual harassment type of comments. I always try to end the conversation immediately and get back to work.

It doesn't hurt to tell him at this point in the conversation that you are thankful of the gesture but that it is inappropriate. While he may legitimately be complementing you in a cringe-worthy fashion, it's clear that it affects you. You do not know this person other than being a co-worker at your workplace. You do not talk to this person outside of work, do not know anything about this person's life, or anything. Just as vice versa, this person doesn't even know you. He doesn't know what sort of clothes you wear, how your appearance appears, etc and within the context of the conversation, completely inappropriate because it's a professional workplace where such gesture is unneeded to carry out the business functions.

So with that in mind, it's a inappropriate gesture. I would tell him right at that point that while his gesture is nice, it's completely inappropriate and not welcomed and for him to stop.

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  • About my colleague not responding to help, I'm mentioning that because he became a bystander. I'm much closer to that colleague and I even know his wife a bit. I know he's a good person, but I doubt he would have let that slide if it were his wife. And that's a standard I think is reasonable to expect people who care about seeing this behavior stop to be held to. If he would have told him to stop about his own wife, why not another woman? I know he has no obligation, but it's a mindset I'd like to see change. Because women often have to deal with this by themselves. – q-compute Feb 18 at 15:08
  • @q-compute Have you talked to your colleague about this? In all likelihood, he doesn't know how to react either. Maybe he thinks you're okay with this behaviour (or at least with ignoring it). Maybe he thinks you can handle it on your own. Talking might clear that up. – Llewellyn Feb 18 at 19:38
  • @q-compute I feel like people would be more helpful if they knew it was bothersome for you. In your sample where you said he'd be more defensive if he was making the same comments towards his wife, that's because he know his wife and such comment is clearly inappropriate. That colleague might think that you're single, that co-worker is single, and perhaps he shouldn't interfere with any possible dialog between the two of you. If you made it clear either by telling the co-worker that you don't welcome the comment, might make him more willing to step in. – Dan Feb 19 at 10:25
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    A second answer recommending she be “thankful” of his “nice gesture?” It’s not nice it’s demeaning, and she doesn’t need to (and should not, as it risks inviting more) be “thankful” for it. – mxyzplk Feb 19 at 14:52
  • @mxyzplk Being polite is not only a good weapon, it's also foolproof way that they can't turn it against you. Right now, no one else in the office know the comments are uninvited because she has not told him or anyone around him. By suddenly exploding in a rage of "don't ever talk to me" might make you look bad. Best to act nice, tell him no, and if he does it around people, inform him right there, in a nice way, that it is uninvited and inappropriate and not to continue. Others, including managers, will see this and ensure it doesn't continue to happen. – Dan Feb 20 at 17:32
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Here's the thing: There are 2 problems with text-based communication which would make you want to avoid it and have this chat in person if possible:

  1. It's impersonal. And because it's impersonal, people can read things into your tone which isn't there, and start drama where it doesn't need to be. You don't want to start drama, because the one who starts drama tends to be the one who is first on the chopping block next time layoffs come around. You simply want this behaviour to stop, without causing drama. So based on that, you should talk in person, where cues such as tone of voice, word choice, body language, and so on, can all come into play, where they couldn't via text. Also, a message coming from a person directly is simply stronger than an impersonal email. Also, you have no guarantee he's even read your email when you sent it and didn't simply trash it or ignore it, which he can't do if you're talking to him.

  2. It's written down. That means, to appropriate a famous quotation, "anything you say can and will be used against you in a court (of law, or public opinion, or HR meeting)". Going back to the above, if you say something in that letter and it can be construed as aggressive, or drama-starting, or insubordinate (if he is your senior in terms of seniority, even if you don't report to him), then it is written down for this person to forward to HR and start a complaint against you. Especially if this person is a) romantically interested in you and b) lacking social skills, this seems like a not-unlikely outcome, that he would launch an HR complaint against you when you rebuff his advances aggressively (not saying it's a good thing that he can/might/will do it, just saying it's possible and you should protect yourself against it).

So my advice would be to discreetly pull him aside one day, maybe after a standup meeting or what have you, when he's not otherwise busy, and have a calm, even, professional chat with him (this is important, you don't want to cause drama or make a scene, you just want to address his behaviour). Let him know you've heard his comments, and while you appreciate his compliments (acknowledge that he almost certainly will respond by something like "oh you can't take my compliments you're such a bitch" or something of that sort, so cut that off right away by saying you appreciate his compliments as compliments), that they make you uncomfortable and you would like him to tone it down a little (don't "demand you stop it" or what have you, because that will escalate the situation; he should get the hint without you having to use inflammatory language).

Try that and see what happens. If that doesn't work, then you can start escalating. Remember: Be the bigger person. Be polite, respectful, don't cause a scene, don't cause drama, that will only serve to hurt you. Explain what you want to say, calmly, respectfully, and professionally, and treat this person as a colleague who is doing something you don't like, not as an enemy. You still have to work with this person after you address this issue and you want to burn as few bridges as you can.

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    Keeping a record is precisely the reason why "please stop harassing me" conversations should be written down, in case he misrepresents the nature of that conversation. OP should also not be expected to say that she "appreciates" these remarks when they are in fact unwelcome. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 18 at 0:15
  • I don't think we know enough about OP's coworker to know that he will "almost certainly" call her a bitch. The coworker as described seems to be unable to take a hint, but there isn't any indication of aggression. – GB1553 Feb 18 at 0:31
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    Why do women have to "appreciate" the thing they want the person to stop just in case someone might be upset to know an opinion might be irrelevant or unwanted? In the OPs place I would not appreciate the "compliments" -- I would not be saying "ooooh thanks so much but hey could you just tone it down a little?" -- this is bad advice. – Kate Gregory Feb 18 at 0:44
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    I do not appreciate his "compliments". And for the record, I wouldn't appreciate them from anyone in the workplace regardless of who they are or what they look like. It is inappropriate, unprofessional, and unwelcome. – q-compute Feb 18 at 1:18
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    @Dan I'm unsure how you don't equate inappropriate = negative. But maybe that's just me. Nothing about some 50+ year old man talking about my appearance at work when I'm in my 20s could ever be seen as positive. It is wrong on so many levels (age, seniority, etc.). – q-compute Feb 21 at 0:55

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