83

I am a recently hired young lady, and a coworker of mine is a young man a few years older than me. We sit relatively close by to each other in the office, close enough to turn around and have a conversation but far enough that we’re not next to each other. We work in separate but related fields but do not work together. Interactions are friendly and polite but professional above all.

A third co-worker, who is a much, much older man and has been here much longer than both of us, is friendly enough with everyone that he often goes around to say good morning to everybody. Nothing invasive and usually a simple “good morning”. Twice now on separate occasions he has successfully roped both of us into a conversation with him (again very harmless, first about sports, second about watches). On both occasions as the brief conversations died down he has asked my coworker what he thinks of my appearance. The first time it was, “Do you think X is beautiful?” and the second time, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how beautiful is X?” referring to me. This was immediately awkward for both of us.

Not only is this a professional office setting but there are least ~20 other people in adjacent cubicles that can hear all that is going on. I don't get paid to sit and hear people's opinions on my appearance nor do I want to. As much as office romances seem appealing in rom-coms, it is not something I am looking for right now and regardless of my availability it’s a very uncomfortable situation for both of us.

I just find it very awkward and unprofessional. I think this matchmaker-coworker thinks he’s being funny or actually doing a good thing and doesn’t seem to pick up on the awkwardness of the situation. I thought it was a one-time thing but since it’s happened again is there something I can say to diffuse the situation and spare us both the awkwardness if it happens a third time? Something like, “Thank you but a reply is not necessary”?

This is the first professional office I’ve worked in full time and I’d appreciate advice on how to handle this if it or a similar situation arises.

Update I found a chance to speak to the older employee 1 on 1. It was actually initiated by him as he approached me and brought up how uncomfortable the male employee gets when he asks him those kinds of questions. He treated the situation like a joke and I realized that it may not have been about me at all, but more of a “boys will be boys” situation. (not that I approve of that saying or mindset.) I hadn’t realized it at first, but this whole scenario could also have been a way for the older man to tease the younger man – albeit at my expense. He laughed about how the younger man became visibly uncomfortable/awkward as if he expected me to laugh along with him. I asked him kindly if he would mind not asking those questions anymore, without bringing up topics like professionalism and sexual harassment He continued to laugh about my coworker’s discomfort - again not seeming to pick up on the awkwardness of the situation - and told me that the two of them were friends as if to assure me that his teasing was alright. I requested again that he stop asking those kinds of questions specifically at work and finally offered that they make me uncomfortable and he finally agreed. Hopefully it will not happen again. I did not mention my own uncomfortableness as much as I probably should have, and he didn’t treat the situation with the gravity that I was looking for, continuing to joke that he would only ask those kinds of questions when they were out at the bar.

He then proceeded to assure me that “despite what X says, I think you’re the prettiest girl here” as if he expected me to be offended that my coworker did not respond out loud to his questions about my appearance. This kind of reinforces the idea that he expected me to be flattered by his questions/offended at my coworker’s lack of response, and doesn’t understand how he is making it awkward etc. etc. Again it was said in a very kind manner, I did not feel encroached upon or creeped out. I do believe he means the compliments, he just has a very old-fashioned (for lack of better words) manner of getting them across. I told him thank you and received final assurance from him that he would stop asking about my appearance in the office. I appreciate everyone’s answers and advice and despite his jovial attitude I do believe I got my message across.

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    He really said “On a scale of 1 to 10 how beautiful is X”. I don't think he means any harm but that is just so wrong. I don't think he means to harass you - to him it is complement. His sense of personal space is so far out there you may need to get your boss and / or HR involved and don't frame it sexual harassment. Just tell them it makes you uncomfortable. If they want to escalate to sexual harassment then fine go don't go there yourself - you don't want the guy fired (I hope). – paparazzo Oct 20 '15 at 19:38
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    Even if you don't feel it rises to harassment, you really should have a conversation with the matchmaker to explain how uncomfortable it makes you when he asks someone else to rate your appearance. He's probably a nice guy that means no harm, but if no one brings his faux pas to his attention, he won't realize there's a problem. A conversation will make it clearer whether it was really intended to be harmless. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 20 '15 at 20:13
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    Sounds like he needs to learn that if he wouldn't say something to a male colleague, he should just not say it. Comments about physical appearance are particularly inappropriate. – kevin cline Oct 20 '15 at 22:30
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    @kevincline: if he's really this clueless, there's a risk there that he'll "solve the inequality" by asking people to rate the men's appearances as well. Whereas of course he shouldn't be saying it to anyone at work, regardless of what he would or wouldn't say to or about a male colleague! – Steve Jessop Oct 20 '15 at 23:57
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    There is a possibility you seem to not have considered. Maybe that young guy secretly has a crush on you, and maybe the older guy somehow knows about that and is trying to help the young guy. I am not saying that is likely to be the case, but it is a possibility, and things can get really awkward if it turns out to be the case and you weren't prepared for it. – kasperd Oct 21 '15 at 10:23
77

What you actually want to tell him is what you have written in your question:

On two occasions as the brief conversations died down you asked my coworker what he thinks of my appearance. First time it was “do you think X is beautiful?” second time: “on a scale of 1 to 10 how beautiful is X” referring to me. This was immediately awkward for both of us.

As much as office romances seem appealing in rom-coms, it is not something I am looking for right now and regardless of my availability it’s a very uncomfortable situation for both of us.

Maybe you think you actually doing a good or funny thing, and I thought it was a one-time thing, but since it’s happened again I want to address this.

Can you stop making these kind of remarks?
I feel uncomfortable when you do that.

Do not wait until the situation happens again.
Ask to speak him privately for a minute.

You seem to like the guy (enough), but not these kind of remarks and hints. The core is that you very clearly ask him to stop doing that. Do not make accusations (at all costs avoid mentioning the sexual harassment hinted at in Kai's answer) - people do not respond well to that. In fact, do not say anything about his being, only ask him to stop doing.

You will have to judge if it is OK to express your opinion that you find it unprofessional (again, not that it is unprofessional).

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    Yes if anything the topic of "sexual harassment" sets people on edge and is not a conversation I'd like to have with him or HR anytime soon. Thank you for the tips, I'll focus more on letting him know how I feel without being accusing. He is a very kind person and I genuinely think it's a lack of social skills on his part. – Struggling Oct 20 '15 at 19:31
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    Probably not so much a lack of social skills as just an old-school mindset. There was a day and age where this type of behavior wasn't totally out of the ordinary, so he probably just hasn't kept up with the times in terms of office etiquette. Unfortunately that may mean he will (consciously or not) resist the change, but with a little luck an informal chat will clear things up (just remember as Jan advised to be clear about it). But if he dismisses your concern or continues the behavior un-apologetically, do not hesitate to escalate. – thanby Oct 21 '15 at 11:20
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    I feel like I should point out that while the content of the block-quote is indeed what the OP should be bringing up in the conversation with her colleague, it should not be taken as a script since that will come across as very abrupt and adversarial. I assume Jan marked it up as such since he's indeed reusing the OP's own comments, which is great, but it may give the impression that these can be used as sample sentences which is probably not the case. – Lilienthal Oct 21 '15 at 13:11
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    The only thing I would add to this is that the in person conversation should be followed up with an email. Something along the lines of, "I wanted to thank you for talking to me about [problem] this [morning/afternoon/at lunch] and taking it seriously. I appreciate you understanding that [problem] makes me uncomfortable and needs to stop." You want the fact that you had this conversation in writing in case you do end up having to escalate to HR. – BSMP Oct 21 '15 at 18:55
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    Can we stop the discussion about sexual harassment here? It is very much subject to interpretation and to the culture you're in. More debate whether it is SH is irrelevant to the OP. Take it to chat if you want. – user8036 Oct 22 '15 at 11:46
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Not only is that behavior unprofessional, I would consider it sexual harassment. If you feel comfortable with it, speak to your "matchmaker" colleague and tell him that it is not appropriate to ask others to evaluate your appearance in that manner, and please never do it again. Also, tell your boss or HR about the past incidents regardless, and if they ask you why you had not brought it up earlier, tell them the comments made you very uncomfortable and hesitant to speak up.

I should note, that the purpose of going to your boss or HR is not necessarily to get the "matchmaker" in trouble, but to make them aware there is a problem. It's all too possible if you go to talk to your coworker, he will dismiss it as "not a big deal" or "you're being too sensitive" which is an extremely common reaction to these situations, and so getting the support of management can be helpful to validate your complaint. Furthermore, it gives your company the opportunity to recognize there is a problem, and work on improving the overall culture of your company.

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    Can we stop the discussion about sexual harassment here? It is very much subject to interpretation and to the culture you're in. More debate whether it is SH is irrelevant to the OP. Take it to chat if you want – user8036 Oct 22 '15 at 11:48
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    @JanDoggen is right. If y'all want to discuss sexual harassment (and whether this is or isn't), take it to The Workplace Chat. – Monica Cellio Oct 22 '15 at 15:19
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This may or may not be "matchmaking". In another time, this might have been seen as a compliment, but in today's workplace it just seems sexist. I do agree that it is inappropriate.

Some will disagree, but since you seem willing to wait and see if it happens again, I would recommend waiting for another occurrence. Perhaps the older man has picked up on your awkwardness and will stop this sort of talk. Furthermore, approaching the older man would be more confrontational, and since you say he is friendly (and even "harmless" in a comment) and well liked, I think you risk doing more harm - possibly to your own reputation around the office - than good by approaching him.

Thus, my recommendation is that if this happens again you speak up and tell the older man that you feel uncomfortable with his remarks and comments. If you genuinely feel this is matchmaking, make it clear you aren't interested in an office romance. You could also ask the younger man if he feels uncomfortable. If you need to bring this up a second time, you could add that it is inappropriate for the workplace. Don't approach HR or management yet.

However, if such an approach doesn't work, go to your boss - or the older man's boss if that is someone different - and tell them what has happened and that you would like this stop. Keep it relatively informal.

HR should be the third stop here. Only go to them if the first two approaches don't work.

My reasons for suggesting you do it this way is that the filers of sexual harrassment complaints usually end up having troubles themselves. In fact, making such a complaint can be a career killer for the person who complains. Furthermore, it is possible that the older man actually means well, but you need to establish your boundaries.

6

This is really more about how so you respond to a coworker who is making you feel uncomfortable about anything not necessarily sexual harassment (although it certainly has the potential to turn into harassment if he doesn't stop). There are several dynamics going on her that can make it difficult to deal with, you are opposite sexes, you have a third party involved who may or may not also feel uncomfortable, you're are different generations and from your description, you are relatively new to the workforce and you are female which means you have often have a lot of cultural programming about not speaking up. All of this makes this a difficult situation for you.

The first thing you need to understand is that he does not know he is making you uncomfortable unless you tell him. He probably thinks this is acceptable behavior and that you are flattered by the attention. This is the part that is not about sexual harassment but about learning to set clear boundaries with people who are not like yourself. If a female friend of yours in a social situation did something like this, you would likely have less trouble saying, "Look I am not interested, please knock off the matchmaking."

Young people are often not used to dealing with older people as peers and especially not with older people of different genders. But you have a right to not be uncomfortable and you have to draw the line. You don't have to do it rudely or angrily, but you need to tell him that what he is doing is making you uncomfortable.

If this escalates later and you ended up in HR with a complaint, the very first thing they will ask you is if you told the man he was making you uncomfortable. So make sure you tell him assertively, but not aggressively, that you are uncomfortable. Do not accept that it was all in fun. If you are uncomfortable it is NOT all in fun.

If you don't have this conversation now, what will happen? He will continue which will make you more and more uncomfortable and frustrated and you might start avoiding working with him and the guy he is trying to match you up with. Often this ends with you being perceived as having a performance problem. Or it might build up until you explode in frustration and then you will be reprimanded by HR. So really it is best to approach things like this as soon as they happen and not let them fester.

Because this guy does not seem to be the aggressive type who makes you nervous to be around, it is probably best to save face for him and approach him privately. Tell him that it makes you uncomfortable because you are not going to have an interoffice romance. Tell him that you don't want the other person to get the impression that you might be interested. Tell him that you want to be judged on something other than your appearance. Tell him whatever you need to say as long as the conversation remains relatively calm and not angry, snarky or sarcastic. Tone is important here, you want to sound professional, not bitchy.

Practice what you want to say in front of a mirror if the idea of bringing this up makes you nervous. You need to learn how to frame an assertive no to people of any sex or gender in the workplace. This is skill you will need for lots of situations beyond harassing behavior. You need to be able to say no when expectations are unrealistic, or when you don't have time available to take on another task or you get asked out on a date, or if people ask you to do something illegal or all sorts of things. Learning to be be able to set boundaries is one of the things many young people of all genders have little experience with. If you feel as if you aren't sure how to be assertive without being aggressive, then read some books on assertiveness.

After the conversation, if he continues to "tease" you about this, then tell him right when it happens that you don't appreciate the behavior and remind him that you asked him not to do it. Some people need multiple reminders because they do this sort of thing reflexively. Still be calm and professional. You will never be the one who comes out ahead if you come across as nasty.

If it continues after a couple of mild reminders, then talk to your boss.

5

This situation is very similar to this one here. That one is about uncomfortable physical touch and this is about uncomfortable talk.

So, I would give you the same advice which I have given to the OP in that question.

If the conversations are getting uncomfortable, you can(and need to) inform that to the concerned. You can just walk up to him in private, and tell him:

Hello, I wanted to talk to you about our conversations at the workplace. I am getting uncomfortable when you are asking (my colleague)/(< colleague's name >) about my appearance. I would really appreciate it if this does not repeat again.

This should do. If it repeats again, you can walk up to your HR or the boss and inform about the problem.

If asked why you didn't bring it up earlier, you can tell them that you have warned him once, expecting him to realize his misbehaviour; but with no result.

2

To be clear, the older man's behavior is sexual harrassment. This isn't ambiguous, and you have very good reason to speak to HR.

You can certainly talk with him directly and likely resolve the current situation. What you do not want to do personally, however, is take it upon yourself to educate the man on what is and is not sexually harassing behavior. This is the responsibility of HR, not of any coworker, let alone one who is being sexually harassed by the employee in question.

I really disagree with the idea that HR is a "last resort." For one, it means vulnerable employees have to figure out the complex social conventions on exactly what they're supposed to put up with and resolve themselves, when really, like anyone else, they should be entitled to get their work done, have friends in and out of the workplace, and have a good's sleep at night. Secondly, HR knows how to treat "minor" situations differently than "major" situations. Less any factors unbeknownst to me or to yourself, the man won't be fired or heavily reprimanded, but at worst will have to undergo sexual harassment training and have a negative record added, which won't make it the best day he's ever had, but it's warranted, and it's something everyone can move on from.

I disagree that relationships don't recover from speaking to HR. You would like to have a good working or even friendly relationship with the man. That can happen after he corrects his behavior. If that cannot happen, it is not your burden or fault.

I also disagree with the idea that the man has any sort of right to a private conversation with you first. It's not hard to know what is and is not sexually harassing behavior. Companies train employees on this when they hire them. Laws enforce this. He's putting himself at risk, harassing you, and... gets a private conversation with the person he's harassing as a reward?

Maybe you can defuse your own situation with him directly. But it simply isn't your job, and addressing his inappropriate behavior beyond your discomfort is not something you can do yourself at all. And this is all assuming nothing goes wrong in your conversation, which I don't see a reason to assume.

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    I agree that it is not the responsibility of the person on the receiving end to resolve the problem, but in situations like these where the behavior is relatively mild, there is a benefit to dealing with it yourself. I prefer to try to resolve situations myself. It makes the next one easier, it empowers me, and I feel it positively affects other's perception of me. Going to HR over something that I might be able to handle myself makes me think of the Monty Python scene where the peasant yells "Help! I'm being oppressed!" Not everyone can stand up for themselves, but if you can, you should. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 21 '15 at 22:25
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    The first question HR will ask you is "Have you asked him to stop?" – HLGEM Oct 23 '15 at 20:45
  • "It's not hard to know what is and is not sexually harassing behavior. Companies train employees on this when they hire them. " This highly depends on the environment - for example, I (based in Germany) have never received, nor know someone who received such training. – sleske Nov 18 '15 at 10:13
1

This behavior is neither matchmaking nor sexist. It is simply a creepy old guy getting his kicks off you because he finds you attractive - trust me there are female versions of this. This sort of behavior is seen at the bar after an uncouth man has 10 drinks it has no place in the workplace.

However because of the details you mentioned you need to deal with this a little differently.

  • because of his age or years with the company a lot of people may think he is harmless.
  • often when people act like this they do it consistently. It could very well be that your co-workers have gotten used to his antics or even worse they accept them. This does not make it right, just giving you the low-down.
  • you are new and don't want to be labeled as a troublemaker. If he is completely harmless and not creepy (who knows) your office may retaliate against you reporting him.

How to handle this:

  • Do not report this as a problem to him. He is clueless. He either will just continue acting the same way with different wording or he will tell everyone in the office that you scolded him.
  • Do say something to your manager and at least initially ask manager to leave it between you two. It needs to be reported in case it escalates.
  • Do act very abrupt with the older man. If he asks people to rate you simply state "That really isn't appropriate for work" and "I don't date people from the workplace so that doesn't matter anyway".

The chances are if you put him on defense right away a couple of times (consistently - so every time he says something rude) he will stop coming by. And since you aren't scolding him or ratting on him no one in the office will think anything of it other than he is shooting off his mouth too much. Sad that we have to treat people different because of age/gender/whatever but those or the facts of life.

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    I strongly disagree with not having a conversation with the person. A conversation doesn't have to be a confrontation. If it turns out that he's open to hearing "Hey, I know you're just kidding around but it makes me uncomfortable.", she's saved herself a lot of trouble. If that doesn't work, then she'll have a better idea of what type of person he is and can take further steps. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 20 '15 at 20:47
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    I always give the benefit of the doubt to folks if I don't have evidence that they are malicious. Sure sometimes that means I'm nice to someone who has it in for me, but more often than not it saves a relationship that might have been really awkward and tense if I had be more aggressive at first. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 20 '15 at 21:09
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    Talking to someone about an issue before you go complain to management is just common courtesy, not white gloves. You're assuming that he's a creepy old guy who isn't worth talking to, and I'm assuming that he's an experienced colleague that she might actually have to work with in the future. I'm surprised that you think "putting him on the defense" and escalating to management wouldn't put a strain on that relationship. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 21 '15 at 12:06
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    You seem very sure about what type of person this is considering all you have is a second-hand account. I've been a woman Engineer for almost 30 years now, so I have lots of experience with this type of situation. As a young woman working almost exclusively with older male Engineers I found that being straight-forward and assuming they didn’t intend to be jerks worked best. I learned a lot about my profession from the guys that I might not have if I hadn't been more tolerant of the age/gender gap. Maybe it only works with technical folks though. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 21 '15 at 15:37
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    I'm not sure about the outcome. My perspective is that a private, assertive (not aggressive) conversation could be enough, and if it's not, it does no harm. Sometimes the threat is more severe and you would want to take immediate decisive action, but from the language used in the question, this sounds more like a communication problem. I've dealt with a lot of real misogyny during the course of my career, and I have gritted my teeth and been professional when I really wanted to punch someone in the nose. I have never regretted trying a conversation first. I have regretted escalating first. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 21 '15 at 16:26

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