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At the moment I (F) have a colleague (M) that works now for 5 months at my workplace.

At the beginning naturally like everyone else you don't know someone yet and need time to get to know one another. I am now at the stage that I concluded that his behaviour is somewhat different and it looks to me he has autistic or narcissistic traits. I am confused and I am not sure how to proceed further.

Professionally, I am very irritated by his behaviour and what he says.

My colleague tends to talk very loudly and he tends to tell the same story repeatedly to different colleagues. I listened three times to his story for roughly one hour each and consequently I was then late at home. That's on me. The weird thing that puzzled me at the beginning is that he always comes to me or another colleague whenever he needs to vent or complain, but besides that he just ignores me like I don't exist which I found weird and not respectful at the beginning, but now it's a blessing. He also says sometimes demeaning things to me and also looks somehow down on my one other female colleague. So, I also get the feeling that he might me a bit misogynistic.

Personally, the issue is he said and did some stuff to me which I found very uncomfortable, and I am now ignoring him. I am not sure whether his behaviour is due to his autism or maybe it's something else. However, I don't feel safe with him.

He always seems fixated on me, since I feel his stares sometimes on me and I feel super uncomfortable with that. He also did once a weird thing. We had a standup meeting in a big room. I felt his clothes touching my back, so I shifted my body away from him, but then he moved to me once again. The same cycle repeated 4 or 5 times and I just kinda gave up.

I felt super uncomfortable by that and I was wondering whether it's due his autism or whether it was sexual harassment.

I don't want to accuse him yet, since he might be just oblivious, but to me it felt super uncomfortable. Apparently another time I was with him and a few other colleagues, he made some jokes which could be interpreted as sexual harassment, but since he doesn't quite read the social cues, it might have been just to make himself funny which wasn't a successful attempt. My other colleague who was also there told me that he found the remarks of my assumingly autistic colleague weird and inappropriate.

I am now thus a stage that I am ignoring him and I only meet with him when there are other colleagues around.

I am wondering whether there are other things I can do, since I always get a dreading and unsafe feeling when I hear or see him.

Edit: it feels weird and invalidating to see that I get attacked for asking this question from some people. For me it feels a bit like victimblaming which doesn't really help and only maks me feel bad for asking this question.

The rest I want to thank and I will be trying to be direct and clear in my communication. In case he goes further, I will go to HR.

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    Commented Apr 30 at 6:33
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    Commented Apr 30 at 15:12

8 Answers 8

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The Netherlands have very good employee protection and culturally this type of behavior is not acceptable. You should find good support from your colleagues and company,

... and did some stuff to me which I found very uncomfortable

Your best bet here is to call out the behavior right there when it happens. Be loud, be firm, be clear: "Stop doing/saying this. It is inappropriate and makes me feel uncomfortable". The more people hear it, the better. And yes, that's difficult to do but it is the most effective way. If you need to practice in front of a mirror and/or with a friend.

and I am now ignoring him.

That's a good start. If he initiates any (unwanted) interaction, your goal is to make this as unpleasant as possible for him, while still being professional. Calling out his behavior in public will do this.

I felt his clothes touching my back,

Again: Call it out: "Please stop touching me"

I was wondering whether it's due his autism

That is not your problem and not your concern. Unless you are officially asked to provide "accommodation" you should treat him the same and with the same expectations as everyone else. You should focus on stopping the unwanted behavior, the causes for the behavior are actually not relevant for you: that would be for HR to deal with.

  1. Keep notes. After every questionable interaction write down the details (when, where, what exactly was said/done, who else was around to corroborate if needed, etc)
  2. Read up on local laws and company policies. In most countries & companies this well regulated and there are clear guidelines of what to do and how to elevate and get help. The Netherlands should be very good this way
  3. Consider involving your manager or HR, but NOT before doing your homework (see bullet 2)
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    @DogBoy37: do not assume that the person is autistic unless there is a communication from HR that you should do so including behavioral guidelines , expectations and required accommodation. Medical information is typically confidential and protected. It's not your business to diagnose your coworkers. It IS your business to behave professionally and to expect everyone around you to do the same.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Apr 28 at 14:57
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    "you should treat him the same and with the same expectations as everyone else", on some levels you're right, but on others you're not. Autistic people view the world slightly different than neurotypical people, and in some cases you'll just have to bluntly tell them to stop doing something and why. Commented Apr 28 at 17:04
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    Also, ignoring him is not necessarily "a good start". People with autism don't always see social cues like being ignored, or if they do see them, they will not get the message you're trying to send. Be clear about the problem. Commented Apr 28 at 17:10
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    @DogBoy37 Whatever OP does is highly unlikely to get anyone fired. Firing anybody in the Netherlands is really difficult (even in comparison to many other EU member states, let alone the US).
    – TooTea
    Commented Apr 28 at 20:04
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    @MarkRotteveel: the problem here is the following "Who determines whether the co-worker is autistic or not?" If everyone starts guessing what medical or mental issues everyone else might have, we end up with a total mess of assumptions, speculations and rumors. The OP thinks the that this may be the case, but they cannot be sure. It's NOT the OPs job to diagnose this. If the co-worker requires accommodation (which is a well defined legal term) HR needs to set guidelines on communicate them. If not, then you should treat them like everyone else.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Apr 29 at 13:24
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Autism isn't a binary, a have it or don't thing, I assume that you know that. This person's autism can't be determined by random people on the internet.

Speaking as parent with twins on the spectrum and a business own with an employee whose autism drastically affects his social skills, BE DIRECT.

Do not be concerned about hurting feelings. Just be direct, firm, as soon as a situation occurs. Explain that the behavior is not correct and to not do it again.

Stay as cool as you can. Try to remember if he could understand social cues, it wouldn't happen in the first place.

He isn't likely intending anything bad. If he keeps doing it, then go to HR.

One thing to remember. You are likely talking to a person that can't extrapolate when it comes to social / interpersonal situatuations. So, be very clear in setting guardrails in what is allowed and what is not allowed.

Example: Come to my desk during working hours to ask a specific question. During stand-up meetings stay at least 3 meters away from me.

Ultimately, you shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable at work from someones behavior. That is a given.

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    I have some autistic friends. They know they are bad at reading social cues, and appreciate explicit feedback when they're overstepping boundaries. So I second the advice to be direct about it, while trying to be sympathetic. Think of it as a form of blindness or deafness; not their fault, but it will cause them to make mistakes; calmly correct the mistakes and move on. If they aren't willing to accept correction, that's time to have their manager council them about appropriate workplace behavior.
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 28 at 15:53
  • Yes. This. Autism is a social disability, not a mental one. Talk to him with direct and objective language. But remember, it is a DISABILITY. Expecting an autistic person to observe subtle social cues is the same as screaming at a deaf person because they can't year you. Commented Apr 29 at 18:44
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    "Don't be concerned about hurt feelings" — DogBoy37 is correct. OP should draft what she wants to tell this coworker and be blunt. Not rude, blunt. Polite communication often relies on kind and subjective language to dull the edges. Do the opposite of that. Be logical, direct, and no-nonsense. Commented Apr 29 at 18:50
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    It's the Netherlands anyway. Direct feedback already is the norm, you're not even assuming autism there.
    – MSalters
    Commented Apr 30 at 13:16
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If he his indeed autistic, it might help to explicitly point it out to him at the time he does something that it is either not appropriate or bothering you. Moving away or ignoring it is not enough to make him realize that what he's doing is inappropriate. Pointing out explicitly (providing clarity) the problematic behaviour and why it bothers you will help him understand and correct his actions.

Telling him what he needs to do instead will also help, but don't sugarcoat it. For example, in the situation where he is standing too close to you, tell him to stand back and not stand in your personal space. Don't say that you'd prefer if he'd give you some space, or something similar, because that just expresses your preference and leaves the decision with him and can also easily be misinterpreted by him in other ways.

Waiting until later (e.g. to do it in private), can produce a too large disconnect between the action and the correction, which might not make him realize the problem. And if you do do it later, make sure you are as clear as possible in identifying the problem, and when it happened.

However, if you feel (too) shy or unable to tell them this directly, don't hesitate to ask your manager for help in addressing this, or some other coworker that is (regularly) present when these behaviours occur. You can also talk to one of the "vertrouwenspersonen" (Google translates it as confidential counselors, but I'm not sure if that translation covers it) that your company is legally required to have (if it has 50 employees or more) exactly for these types of scenarios.

Others have said to go to HR immediately, but I think that if this colleague is indeed autistic that might be an extreme escalation, and might take longer to resolve things than confronting them or having your manager confront them. On the other hand, if this guy is just a creep, instead of socially awkward/oblivious, such escalation might be the better course of action.

Keep in mind: HR might redirect you to the "vertrouwenspersoon" anyway.

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    One important thing about autism is that people with autism have problems getting hints, but are perfectly fine being told what you mean. Don't give hints. Like "you are always there when I come from my coffee break". I would get the hint that you don't like it. Someone with autism would see that you stated a true fact. Tell them "I don't want you to be at my desk when I come from my coffee break". I'd think that is rude. Someone with autism would understand exactly what you say and stay away from your desk. And don't worry about motivation, only about what actually happens.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 28 at 14:09
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    @Musashi17: Trying to decode inner motives is a waste of your time and energy, and potentially unhealthy to your mental state. Avoid it. Commented Apr 28 at 14:09
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    @Musashi17 As Daniel says, it's hard to assign intent, and you shouldn't. Just keep it factual on how his interactions with you make you feel, and what you'd like them to change. Don't try to infer anything about their motivations. It doesn't help, and only clouds the issue. Commented Apr 28 at 17:08
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    @TooTea I am half Dutch and half Japanese. My personality is a bit mixed. I am indirect for a dutch person, but direct compared to japanese standard. So that might indeed explain that I find it uncomfortable to be very direct or blunt.
    – Musashi17
    Commented Apr 28 at 20:17
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    @Musashi17 I recommend that you practice this with a Dutch friend, until you get more comfortable. That will be hard work. (There was a TV show where they invited 20 people each from different countries to a free holiday, telling them that they would be filmed and interesting things would be happening, with two paid actors in every group. Question: How do people react if someone jumps the queue at the hotel bar? The two Japanese actors found it 100% impossible for them to jump the queue, even knowing that it wasn't real but just an experiment. )
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 29 at 13:27
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Autism

Other answers have covered what you should do, but I just wanted to comment on autism itself. Many people in the community make the important observation that "autism is an explanation, not an excuse". What that means is that people on the ASD spectrum are fully responsible for their actions and behavior. They don't get a free pass to do whatever they feel like because they have a neurodivergent (ND) diagnosis. You do not have an obligation to "accommodate" them by allowing them to do whatever they want. In fact, doing so does neither of you any favors. You will build up resentment, and they will learn the wrong social cues about their behavior and get in trouble with other people who are less tolerant.

The only accommodation you should give to ND individuals is adjusting your communication style. As others have pointed out, neurotypical (NT) people will often say things indirectly and couch them in metaphor to avoid giving offense. But ND folks prefer you to just say what you need to say directly, even if the bluntless feels offensive by your NT expectations. ND folks often struggle with metaphors and tend to take things more literally, so they actually prefer bluntness. Sometimes, they do not know that something they are doing is inappropriate or bothersome to others. If you tell them directly, they will often appreciate the bluntness and will hopefully change their behavior.

Accommodation

Fortunately, being blunt about setting your personal boundaries is also appropriate for NT coworkers, although there is a greater risk of offense and resentment. I think it is reasonable to tell the coworker once or twice to stop/modify their objectionable behavior. You should, of course always document the behavior (date/time/location/other coworkers present), and escalate to HR if it continues. If you wish to accommodate a perceived neurodivergence, do so by explicitly stating the undesired behavior and what you expect going forward. Do not use euphemisms or figures of speech or idioms. Use the most clinically appropriate and precise language that you can. This includes not just physical touching, but sexually inappropriate jokes and even discriminatory (misogynistic) behavior. This might make you uncomfortable, so if you don't think you can handle it, then just engage HR immediately to assist.

If it helps, think of your coworker as someone who came from a different culture and hasn't learned all the ins and outs of your culture. They most likely don't mean any harm, but simply have not received adequate feedback on what behaviors are acceptable or not. Unfortunately, they have probably also picked up on bad behavior from other coworkers and determined that this is acceptable behavior. If they protest: "Well, Ted does this too!" then just reply: "If Ted does it to me, we will be having a meeting with HR soon after. He will get no special treatment." As long as they believe there are rules in place for everyone and they are enforced fairly, there is a good chance they will respect the boundaries. Of course, each person is a unique individual, so YMMV.

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I am wondering whether there are other things I can do, since I always get a dreading and unsafe feeling when I hear or see him.

Talk to the HR. Now.

An employee is making your uncomfortable and is bordering on some sort of sexual harassment when it's getting to touch state, don't wait any longer, just go and report it with HR. Same with all the sexism and misogyny, it's no on you to take it, or to correct the employee - that's what HR is for.

I don't understand the other answers here at all. You hear some office rumour that the person may be autistic - it doesn't matter, and it's not your place to act upon. If HR then wants to ask you to be more accommodating to them, do that, but that's not going to allow the person to touch you intentionally (with clothes or body), that definitely won't be part of it.

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    I do think it's worth the OP's while to try and be more direct in her feedback to this colleague. They may indeed just not get the hint and need a clearly worded setting of boundaries. Saying so is more socially acceptable in The Netherlands than it might be elsewhere. That said: yes, going to HR is also reasonable. A colleague getting this close to you physically, is not socially acceptable. Commented Apr 29 at 11:35
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    I second @KatinkaHesselink's comment. I've unfortunately been the guy who unknowingly interacted in a very awkward way with a female colleague (although nothing as extreme as the question), and after excusing myself and having a talk with her, we figured out everything. She just had to point out my reaction was inappropriate. If that doesn't work, HR.
    – Clockwork
    Commented Apr 30 at 14:51
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    @Clockwork I am glad it worked out for you, but also you have to realize that you don't deserve for OP, or anyone else there, to give you that chance; going right to HR is a perfectly fine response and that must be made clear. Standing up myself is also what I would personally do, but then I am loud, brass and unashamed, many people do not want to handle that confrontation themselves.
    – Aida Paul
    Commented Apr 30 at 14:55
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    Aida, there was a guy in a wheelchair, and he was absolutely in my way. It offended me. I owe that guy in the wheelchair nothing. This guy is a colleague. He most likely has a disability that makes things hard for him. If you think you "owe him nothing", maybe your employer owes you nothing either. In the USA you would owe him "reasonable accommodations". In the Netherlands most likely too.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 30 at 17:04
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    ... co-worker "accomodation" in the form of unambiguous communication is anyways worth while: a) with or without autism, an unambiguous statement of what behavior is required may lead to the desired result. b) the small cost of one more communication cycle before escalating to HR protects the privacy of (unknown but existing) people whose disability requires such accomodation: where such steps are taken, they don't need to disclose their disabiliy. (For me, this alone would be sufficient reason) And c) last but not least, it may be required without OP being aware of this since the co-worker.. Commented May 6 at 18:25
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People are talking about HR. I think that is the wrong escalation. Talk to your supervisor/boss/leader. That is the natural next step here. Someone or something is making your work life uncomfortable and less productive, that is textbook "talk to your leader"-material.

I agree that this sounds like a case for talking to the employee rep, or perhaps even HR, but those things come after talking to your boss. A good leader should be grateful to hear about this kind of sand in the machinery, and motivated to fix it.

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I agree with previous answers and comments saying that focusing on his possible diagnosis is not going to help. I have been in your place where I want to think the best of people and I excuse their behaviour too. Sometimes it's hard to accept someone is crossing a boundary because when a boundary is set it is us who have to take action to enforce it. It feels unfair that someone else crosses a line but we have to "make a fuss" or leave, but the number one person you can count on is you.

The first suggestion I would give is practicing "grey rocking". It's a technique for handling difficult, overwhelming people. The basic idea is to be as boring as possible, only answering with the most minimal information in most neutral tone - not angry, not pleasant, neutral. You can find out more by looking up the term "grey rock technique".

The second suggestion is just a repetition of what everyone else has said - call him out in the moment, immediately. If he stands too close - immediately state "Brian, please stand further away". If he is staring - "Brian, did you need something?". If he starts a monologue - "Brian, I am busy/need to go, can you send it over an email?". If I can be frank - I'm not too sure he will stop because you call him out and you probably have the same suspicion. However, this draws attention of any colleague in the vicinity and they will begin to see the pattern too. This will help with step 3.

The third step I would suggest is what Aida has already mentioned - consult HR. Don't bring up diagnosis rumours. You don't even have to file a complaint per se. Unfortunately HR works more for the company than for the employees, but it doesn't mean they won't help - they'll help when it benefits the company. Call me paranoid, but I would dip my toes by requesting advice on how to handle a coworker that goes on 1+h non work related monologues. His name goes on their radar and you get an idea how does the HR department work in this company.

You might feel more comfortable disclosing and reporting the harassment when the pattern has been established by calling him out and when you have had contact with HR and have gotten to know how they work. It's absolutely normal to be in a state of overwhelm when you are his main target and no one else notices what is happening. So stick to 3 steps:

  1. Grey Rock if he approaches you
  2. Call him out to establish a pattern
  3. Get comfortable with HR

See, he is free to stop at any stage - when you show no interest, when you call him out again and again. If he doesn't stop and you're left to report the harassment case to HR there's no one left to blame but himself.

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A few years ago, a female colleague had joined a company at which I was working. At some point during one of our conversations, I had said something bluntly, which I didn't know was an inappropriate thing to say. Suffice to say, she looked visibly angry and asked me if I thought that was an appropriate thing to say. It took me a few weeks to muster the courage to excuse myself and explain why I reacted the way I did without knowing it wasn't appropriate. We had a little talk, she explained to me why it wasn't an appropriate thing to say, and from then on we resumed interacting in a professional way.

I'm not on the spectrum. Since I grew up with a different lifestyle than most of the others during their childhood, I've had to learn social cues which are obvious for others but with which I am unfamiliar. I may say things and behave in ways that people find inappropriate without knowing it. My colleagues got used to letting me know about it when it happens, and I've also learned what may be inappropriate, so things are a lot smoother now.

If a colleague is behaving in a way that you find inappropriate towards you, there's a chance they might be as clueless as I was, so it might be worth pointing it out. If that doesn't work, you may refer to some of the other answers which talk about approaching HR.

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    With that being said, none of what I did, no matter how awkward, was anywhere as close as what is being described in the question, so HR might be a better solution since harassment is involved.
    – Clockwork
    Commented Apr 30 at 15:05

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