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This Friday we had a company party. Drinks were free, we were at a night club, and people were dancing in a circle. I saw a lady there who actually ranks reasonably high in the company who had been slightly flirty with me in the past (smiles broadly when she sees me, makes eye contact, etc.)

I was being a total moron. I brushed my hands against her shoulders, as if to dance. Other people were there. I don't know if they saw, but it's safe to assume they did. She left immediately. I disappeared into the crowd out of embarrassment. I don't know what else happened. I left shortly after.

I'm thinking about sending her a message tomorrow saying "I want to apologize, I felt I crossed the line at the company party. Do you have some time to talk?" and then call her, saying what I did was wrong and totally inappropriate and won't happen again. She works in a different office than me so a call is necessary.

How do I best make this better?

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    "Brushed my hands against her shoulders, as if to dance" - it's not clear what this means. But assuming it was fairly innocuous, you may well be reading far too much into what happened - she may well have left abruptly for a dozen different reasons, some of which were nothing to do with you, and most likely you will never know. Or perhaps the next time you pass in the corridor, you may get a clue if the eye contact and smile is still there, or alternately definitely isn't. . . – peterG Dec 12 '16 at 13:26
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    "She left immediately." She left the party, or left the dance floor? – David K Dec 12 '16 at 13:37
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    to reiterate a previous comment: Smiling and making eye contact is NOT flirting. I call that being polite when someone says hello. I'd be in trouble if everyone I smiled at and made eye contact with thought I was flirting with them. – BunnyKnitter Dec 12 '16 at 18:24
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    'I want to apologize ... Do you have some time to talk?' may be interpreted as a veiled effort to interact with her more, and perhaps even as willful disregard of her choice to tacitly reject you on the dance floor. At the moment it sounds like a pretty mild faux pas situation, but it could get bad fast if you poke at it. – CCJ Dec 16 '16 at 21:36
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    What country / culture? – A E Dec 17 '16 at 9:09

11 Answers 11

239

It sounds like she was uncomfortable with what happened. However, if putting a hand on her shoulder was the limit of your behaviour, you should be ok.

There are 3 reasons to not send an email.

  1. It will come across as intimidating. You invaded this woman's space and made her feel uncomfortable. I doubt she would want to open an email from you.
  2. It puts in writing what happened. Should she make a complaint (or someone else on her behalf), a written apology is documentation of the event.
  3. It will come across as a job-saving effort, insincere.

Office parties often result in some office awkwardness. The best option is to let it go. If your colleague wants to talk, be receptive and apologetic if needs be. If not, just do your job.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Dec 12 '16 at 23:44
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Do NOT create a paper trail when there is no paper trail.

By doing so, you will be creating an issue where there is none.

If she talks to you about it, say that you're sorry and didn't mean to be offensive. If she doesn't, don't bring it up.

If you really feel the need of discussing this issue, tread carefully.

Do:

Hi, I hope everything's OK with you - I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable at the party, I hope you're feeling OK.

Do not:
Say things like "everything OK between us" - there is no "us".

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    "There is no us" - very good point – Kate Gregory Dec 12 '16 at 13:19
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    While I agree with everything here, I must say that one may say "everything OK between us" as if was saying "I hope that whatever happened belongs to the past and that this doesn't affect our current relationship, in it's current status. Both professional and personal.", being the "personal relationship" merely a friendship that you treasure. But the safest is to do not say "us". – Ismael Miguel Dec 12 '16 at 15:17
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    "With you" sounds awkward to me. How about just "I hope everything's OK"? – Mehrdad Dec 13 '16 at 8:13
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    I can't believe "paper trail" is the main issue here :/ – mgarciaisaia Dec 13 '16 at 17:10
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    You're reading the answer too literally. It's not about the exact wording or the "oh no paper can be used against you" - it's about not escalating things and not needlessly blowing stuff out of proportion. If you start mailing or have your lawyer draft a letter, CC HR, you're more likely to elicit an equal reaction out of them than had you gently settled without making waves. Don't make a big deal out of this when it doesn't have to be. – Konerak Dec 13 '16 at 20:44
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+50

Apologizing is probably appropriate. But your apology plan is not. Here's why:

  • it's too easy for you and too intrusive on her. You fire off an email asking to set up a call. What if she doesn't want a call? Why is it ok to "be in her space" again so that you can receive absolution for your behavior?
  • it leaves an archive of vague apologies that would fit far worse behaviour (eg grabbing her and kissing her without consent, putting your hand up her skirt, or taking all your clothes off on the dance floor) that could be used against you, either by her or by anyone who comes across it
  • it doesn't really admit wrongdoing in intent or action, just in amplitude. It says that wanting to dance with someone above you in the company, and expressing that want in front of others at the company, is fine, but that you just took it too far. This is not correct.
  • it seems to be focused on how you feel and what might happen to you which is not a sign of maturity. While apologizing does make us feel better, that can't be the main reason for doing it. How do you think she felt? What so you think she needs to know now?

A better apology:

  • would be less easily searchable and discoverable by others. An IM or whatever Slacklike thing your company uses, perhaps, even though she could save it if she wanted to hurt you. A paper note if you hand it to her with minimal words ("I was an idiot last Friday") and immediately leave. An in-person speech, though that is intrusive and might draw attention. A phone call if you think she would take the call and especially if she answers her own phone.
  • is clear about the offense. "I am sorry for inviting you to dance by touching you without your consent."
  • does not contain suggestions that her beauty or previous flirtiness left you unable to resist
  • does not suggest that that free drinks provided by the company lessened your responsibility (best I think not to mention them, this is about her)
  • is clear that you will not repeat this behavior
  • does not request that she immediately absolve you. Ending with "please forgive me" may feel appropriately dramatic, but it's putting the pressure on her on the spot.

She may have shrugged it off already or it may have been a far bigger deal to her. It may have reminded her of something far worse that happened in the past. "She left immediately" is a pretty strong response to an invitation to dance. To her, it may have felt like something much stronger.

Once you apologize, that's that. It's over. Don't mention it again. Don't get in touch after a while to see if she's forgiven you yet or to confirm she is still ok with whatever forgiveness she gave you. When you happen to bump into her, interact with her as you did before (including smiling, sure) but stop thinking that this is flirty or that the two of you could be a couple. It's a bad plan while you work together even if you are reading her signs correctly, and it's a terrible plan if you're reading them incorrectly. I make eye contact with a lot of people, and smile at them, and even hug some of them, and I assure you I am not flirting with any of them.


Whatever you say to her, you need a new holiday party plan and you need to examine your beliefs as reflected in your wording of the question

  • you got "too drunk" - there is no level of "drunk" that is ok at a holiday party with your coworkers. If you're drunk, you're going to do something you'll regret. Very drunk is bad, and a little drunk is also bad. Your issue is you got drunk, period. Not too drunk.
  • you "flirted inappropriately" - flirting with coworkers is insanely dangerous. Your wording again suggests there is a flirting level that's appropriate. Yet almost all office party flirting is not just inappropriate but flat out wrong and something that could lead to court cases.
  • you brushed your hands - plural - across her shoulders. Both hands! So basically you grabbed her by the shoulders, but lightly? Touching someone without permission is a part of dating and flirting, I get it. But tentative, reaching out to see if someone wants to be reached out to, right? Maybe with one hand, and stopping before contact with a questioning look on your face? A both-hands move is direct to the point of scary. You need to know for sure it would be received well. In your question you don't seem to notice this.

I don't want to be all I'm-not-angry-just-disappointed motherly on you, but you need to take a strong look at your intentions and attitudes. They come across as not really being aware that she is also a person, with her own stuff going on, not just someone for you to interact with.

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    I'll try to give a bounty to this... it's not the most actionable answer but for anyone who wants to read thoroughly, it's very much the most informative and didactic. – user42272 Dec 12 '16 at 20:29
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    This is a great answer, upvoted for that, but still I don't really feel the last paragraph is constructive/appropriate. – Marc.2377 Dec 13 '16 at 2:51
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    I strongly object to the last paragraph. You're basically projecting all sorts of abstract ideas about the deep nature of human psychology onto the OP with very, very little evidence about his internal thought processes. The only thing you know is that he had romantic intentions, and that these weren't reciprocated. Inferring from this that he's not thinking of her as a person "with her own stuff" is quite offensive. – goblin Dec 14 '16 at 11:50
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    Assumption would be offensive. Inference is not. This answer says succinctly what the question author needs to know, including the perspectives of both parties and covering all aspects without holding back. The advice is solicited, and is exactly the kind of answer I would want to see if I posted a question. – trichoplax Dec 14 '16 at 13:53
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    "Touching someone without permission is a part of dating and flirting" this is really untrue. I mean, maybe it's true for you, personally, or the culture you grew up in but it certainly isn't a statement you can make as broadly as that. One of the hardest things for me (a Greek) to get used to when I lived in the UK was that nobody touched me. In Mediterranean cultures (I have lived in Greece, Spain and France) casual physical contact if very common and completely innocuous (also gender agnostic). Just bear in mind that culture plays a very important role in what is and is not appropriate. – terdon Dec 15 '16 at 12:51
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Pretend it never happened, and deny any ulterior motives if asked. She may be uncomfortable around you in the future, but just act professionally. You made your move and it was rejected, leave it at that (and don't repeat it).

Don't apologise unless taken to task over it and don't acknowledge any sort of guilt even then. Just apologise that you made her uncomfortable without meaning to.

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    There's always the Shaggy defense: "it wasn't me". Seriously, this probably wasn't a big deal for her. I'm assuming the mores of the US/Western Europe here. Sounds to me that she didn't really want to deal with the situation and probably had better things to do. Exactly the right answer if she wants to discuss it. Make it clear you want to move on. – JimmyJames Dec 13 '16 at 0:52
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    I think "leave it at that" is the best strategy. People do make moves and get rejected all the time. I would not apologize within the company setting, because "the move" does not constitute sexual harassment. Maximum OP should do in the way of acknowledgement is to say he was a little drunk and refuse to discuss this any further. – user27051 Dec 14 '16 at 18:29
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    @JimmyJames ew, no. She knew it was you, you knew it was you, she "ran out" which kinda implies it was a least somewhat of a big deal to her, now should it come up again, you're suggesting looking her in the eye and telling me "bring it up again and I will deny it?" No, just no. – user42272 Dec 18 '16 at 23:13
  • @djechlin "it wasn't me" wasn't really serious. As far as the rest of it, there's no statement that she "ran out". "She left immediately" was the statement. Basically the OP states she was flirting with him by looking at him in the eye and smiling. I take that as evidence that he doesn't understand women (even relative to the average man.) My guess is that she was unaware that he thought she was interested in him until he did this and was uncomfortable. He's a nerd, she "ranks high in the company" It seems likely that again, he is overestimating how much he matters to this woman. – JimmyJames Dec 19 '16 at 14:27
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First thought: You may need to recalibrate some pretty basic assumptions if you think everyone who makes eye contact and smiles is flirting with you. It's pretty much the first thing you're taught in customer service, for one thing.

That aside, I'm with Kilisi's answer. You're all dancing next to each other at a nightclub. You touch the shoulders of the person next to you or in front of you, to dance with her. She leaves. Assuming that's all you were doing (you weren't grinding against her back, or holding onto her as she moved away, or something generally unpleasant) then you're probably overthinking this.

18

Lots of people make fools of themselves at company parties. Of course, this can't be an excuse.

Overall, what is considered normal depends on the company's and your location's culture. Where I live I have seen all kinds of inappropriate behaviour at such events and to some extent it is considered OK as long as the participating sides were all fine with it. I've seen people get so drunk they couldn't go home (I mean they didn't know where they lived) and had to be transported by somebody else. They weren't terminated but did inspire gossip and I wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

In your case, however, it seems you have done something that was not OK with your colleague, assuming she really got out because of you. But even if she didn't, hopefully you got the message - work parties are not like getting drunk out with friends nor are they like college parties.

At all company events, even when alcohol is provided/free, etc, you should absolutely not get drunk or do anything inappropriate. Many of your colleagues will be in the party to have civilized fun - they might have a drink or two but they won't be expecting things they ought to see at a college party. Also remember managers and HR representatives will be there and surely they will not be happy if they see you act unprofessionally.

Now, back to your case. There is a big chance your colleague does not want to remember about what happened last night. You can send an apology message (it can be an IM rather than an email) but don't insist so much that she talks to you about it. Language like "crossed the line" sounds too harsh, yet very vague to me. Rather, you can express your concern that you have acted inappropriately and apologize if you made her feel uncomfortable. Assure her it won't happen again.

If she says it's OK, don't dig in any deeper and leave it as it is. If it gets more serious - she raises it with HR, etc., be ready to own it up and promise them it won't happen again. It really depends on workplace and location culture how bad this is.

The most important consequence of this is that you shouldn't do it again. Remember that company parties are not like going out with friends to get drunk and hit on other people.

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    @CarlWitthoft: Yeah, this is exactly the reason I'm saying it depends on the country a couple of times. The drinking and partying culture is quite different here in Eastern Europe, unfortunately. – JohnSomeone Dec 12 '16 at 16:38
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Do not apologize or initiate contact in anyway regarding the event.

If she confronts you, you do not remember anything, and apologize profusely.

Simple as that. (Sadly)

Any other action can only lead to a worse outcome.

8

Apologizing is fine. But concern about the paper trail is necessary.

Your options seem to be:

By Email, as you suggested (not recommended) - By apologizing profusely and using words such as "I crossed the line", " what I did was wrong", "totally inappropriate", "won't happen again" you imply having at least sexually harassed her if not worse. Apologizing too much makes people who witness the apology fill in the blanks on their own, that's not something you ever want to happen. Worst case scenario is she drunk too much, had a blackout, and has to guess what happened based on your email.

In person (not recommended) - She may want to avoid contact with you for a short while, so going to meet her might be something she won't appreciate. That would go against the purpose of the apology.

By card (not recommended) - You can write her a nice card, possibly add a small present. While this is usually appreciated if the offense wasn't dating related, in this case this is probably the worst possible option. It sends the signal that you are still interested in pursuing her.

By IM - Send a short IM that doesn't spell out what happened, and doesn't imply something happened which didn't:

I apologize for the awkwardness at the party, it was my mistake.

Keeping it short allows you to skip the details, which are probably embarrassing for both of you, and writing less makes it harder to be misunderstood. Using IM is more appropriate than email for such short messages which don't need to be archived.

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    You rightfully bring up the subject of being careful about leaving a paper trail, but then you suggest that he sends her an IM. The two are contradictory. – Moss Dec 12 '16 at 16:29
  • @Moss No contradiction. Being concerned about a paper trail means being careful what to write. It doesn't mean you can't write anything at all. Nothing terribly bad happened, so he shouldn't send an email with his suggested content that implies something terribly bad happened. If he truly wants to apologize, a simple short IM, that doesn't imply something happened which didn't, is the best bet. If he wants to apologize, the alternatives are in person, by email, or by sending a card (potentially with flowers (bad idea)). All of these alternatives are worse than the short IM. – Peter Dec 12 '16 at 16:43
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    This still assumes there was awkwardness at the party. She may just have happened to need the toilet at the time he put his hands on her shoulders. He hasn't mentioned coworkers saying "you seemed a bit frisky last night". It may well be that it's only him that feels uncomfortable because he's reading far too much into far too little. In that case, any kind of apology implies something happens which actually didn't. – Graham Dec 12 '16 at 18:36
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    @Graham Correct, this assumes there was awkwardness at the party. From the OP's question that "assumption" seems like a certainty. – Peter Dec 12 '16 at 19:26
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    @Relaxed You can write the same short text in an email. But most companies have an IM system (Skye or some such) for short and informal messages, and some people consider excessively short and informal emails to be rude, which isn't the case with IMs. – Peter Dec 15 '16 at 0:45
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If by "shoulders" you actually mean "breasts" then yes, you've got a problem. Probably best to clear your desk and sneak out the fire exit!

If however, you only grabbed her shoulders then there's probably nothing to worry about. Definitely don't put anything in writing to her as it could be used against you as others have said.

I would just forget about it and get on with your life/career.

If you do see her around the office, or any other woman, and they smile at you and make eye contact, just remember - this doesn't necessarily mean they want you to grab their shoulders, or any other part of their bodies.

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    don't "grab" people. anywhere. don't "grab" people then decide it was okay because of where or how you grabbed them. don't analyze whether they meant for you to "grab" them then see whether you were right or not. this advice is just gross. – user42272 Dec 18 '16 at 23:15
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    @djechlin I disagree - there are certain times when grabbing someone is perfectly fine. This scenario, however, sounds like it ISN'T one of those. – Percy Dec 21 '16 at 13:34
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Timing, Temperament, and Tone.

  • This was a social event. Apologize in a social setting.
  • Don't email an apology.
  • If you find yourself socializing again with her, possibly in the form of 1:1 small talk, apologize then. Keep it short and sweet: "I apologize if I made you feel uncomfortable at the party", period.
  • Temperament and tone must be sincere, otherwise don't bother.

You cannot control how she will look at you again or feel about your apology, so don't stress out about it. If the only time she ever talks to you is to say good morning, or to discuss work, then she's communicated how she wants to deal with you, so leave it at that.

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    If I were the person at the party who was legitimately frightened, apparently to the point of exiting immediately, I would continue feeling frightened by someone apologizing for "if they made me feel uncomfortable." You scared me, and now you want me to know you're not sure if you did and you're not sure it was your fault? I don't feel safe around you at all now. You just went out of your way to make sure I know you don't think you did anything wrong. – user42272 Dec 18 '16 at 23:22
  • Right. However, my suggestion for an apology hinges on the fact that if she chooses to socialize with him again, then she must feel comfortable socializing with him again. The truth is he doesn't know if he made her feel uncomfortable, or if she got an emergency phone call, or if it was midnight and Cinderella had to go home. He should apologize because making her feel uncomfortable was not his intent. However if she doesn't feel comfortable around him anymore then he should catch the hint and just suck it up. – MDMoore313 Dec 18 '16 at 23:29
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    An apology of the format "I apologise for my behaviour at the party" is far more appropriate and shows genuine remorse, not an apology that tries to absolve the OP from blame. He acted inappropriately, someone got offended. Therefore, the OP needs to apologise for the behaviour, not because someone got offended by the offensive behaviour. – Jane S Dec 24 '16 at 2:22
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I don't think that what you did is a career killer. It was awkward, but it involved a social setting and alcohol. This person is just as likely to want to forget this happened as you, and it's unlikely that this will end up becoming a major issue.

That being said, you have to also make sure that you don't turn an already unpleasant event into a bigger mess. Most likely, the best thing you can do is act as if nothing even happened. As if you've forgotten the whole thing.

Don't apologize, don't admit any guilt, and don't go around telling people what you did, or how awkward it was. Just pretend it never happened, and prepare yourself to face this person and act that way.

protected by enderland Dec 14 '16 at 13:23

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