Ask a Boss: My Co-workers Won’t Stop Asking Me Out!

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Photo: Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I work in a smallish department of a medium-size division of a huge company. I’ve been here for about a year and I’ll probably be leaving for a new job very far away in a few months. I’m wondering if there’s a tactful way to suggest to the heads of the department on my way out that they might want to run some harassment (or interpersonal? is that even a thing?) training. I wouldn’t think that what I’ve been dealing with was legally actionable as harassment (I am a lawyer!), but it’s annoying and I think some sort of training or something might be able to stamp it out.

Over the past year, four of the men I work with have asked me out, and at least one other has indicated that he sort of wants to, so I’m avoiding him. Some of them were my supervisors. Every time this has happened, it plays out in the same way: They are a little too interested in me, I try to indicate that I am definitely not going to be into them asking me out (ignoring/laughing off their hints/misunderstanding their jokes), they ask me out anyway, I say no as nicely as is possible, things get weird. I understand being a little awkward for a while, but this is going beyond that. Things like my supervisor telling me I looked hot with my hair up in a ponytail, or a team lead asking me not to join his group for lunch because it would make his ex-girlfriend, who eats with them, unhappy because she knows he likes me. I’m TIRED of this. And furious about it. I know this is happening to other women here, too.

I know the department would take this seriously, but I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, and I’m fairly sure if I mentioned what’s been going on it would be pretty obvious who one of these guys is. And it’s not just him, it honestly feels like it’s everyone right now.

Is there a way to suggest some sort of training in such a way that it doesn’t get anyone in trouble? Am I crazy for thinking this is even an issue that needs to be dealt with? Also, the job I’m expecting to jump to will be in a male-dominated field with a very strong/necessary social aspect to it. Is there a way to shut this stuff down before it starts while still being open to friendships? I’m just so exhausted and demoralized by it all.

No, you’re not crazy for wanting to be able to go to work and do your job without feeling like your co-workers are assessing your attractiveness, sizing you up as a potential date, putting moves on you, and making you a factor with jealous exes. And some of these guys have been your managers?! That’s particularly bad. You’re not overreacting, and you should speak up.

Your idea of suggesting some training is a good one — please do that! — but my fear is that if your suggestion doesn’t include a mention of what you’ve personally had to deal with, it won’t carry the same weight and urgency as if it does.

I hear you that you don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but not wanting to get anyone in trouble is probably one of the biggest reasons that sexual harassment doesn’t get reported (along with the very real concern people often have that reporting it will cause tension in their working relationships and make their work lives more difficult). I’m sympathetic to that, and I don’t want to minimize it. But it’s also true that this kind of behavior won’t stop as long as we worry more about getting people in trouble than about shutting it down.

And really, some people in the scenarios you’ve described should get in some trouble. That’s not the case with a co-worker who asks you out and is able to take no for an answer and behave normally afterward. But a manager who tells you that you look hot with your hair up or a team lead telling you not to join a conversation with other colleagues because it will upset his ex-girlfriend? Someone actually does need to talk to them and make it clear that they can’t behave that way.

And in particular, it sounds like your company needs to do a much, much better job of training managers and making it clear they can’t make sexually tinged comments or ask out or otherwise come on to people whom they have authority over (ick). That one’s not negotiable; legally and ethically, part of being a manager is that you don’t get to hit on people who work for you. And they need to train everyone else, too, that work isn’t the place to troll for dates.

To be clear, it’s not that consenting adults never meet and date at work; of course they do, and not all instances of someone asking out a co-worker are unwelcome. But as your experience shows, it can be incredibly uncomfortable to deal with ongoing romantic interest from co-workers, and so anyone interested in asking out someone at work needs to be particularly attuned to signals that it would be welcome, and needs to back off immediately if they’re not getting those signs. And part of the deal with expressing interest in someone at work is that if it’s not reciprocated, you must be prepared to immediately return to interacting with them normally — no moping, no pointed remarks, no behavior that makes their work life less comfortable. (And again, for managers, it’s a blanket ban regardless. The power dynamics inherent in the relationship mean that managers can’t date, flirt with, hook up with, or otherwise interact on a romantic or sexual level with people in their line of authority, period.)

Some of this is about legal liability for the company and making sure that they’re complying with federal and state laws against sexual harassment. But even beyond that, decent employers want to ensure people can come to work and not have to deal with the crap you’re dealing with.

So yes, talk to someone. That person shouldn’t necessarily be your department head though. If you are 100 percent sure that your department head will understand the problem you’re describing and respond appropriately (meaning shutting the behavior down and effectively educating everyone about why it isn’t okay), then maybe. But usually with this stuff, HR is your better bet. I don’t recommend going to HR for most things because your boss is more often the right person to talk to, but this is one area where HR makes sense. They have the training to recognize this for the problem it is, and they understand the legal liability for the company if they don’t take it seriously and respond appropriately. That, unfortunately, isn’t always true for managers as a whole.

And last, your question about whether there’s a way to be friendly and social with people without opening the door to this stuff. There certainly should be — but remember that this crap is ultimately about choices these guys are making, not about something you’re doing too much of or not doing enough of. You should be able to be warm and friendly to co-workers. You shouldn’t have to be cold or pull back on social relationships, particularly in a field where you know they’re important. You shouldn’t have to put “I’m not flirting; please don’t ask me out” in your email signature, or shoulder the burden of initiating an awkward “I’m not interested” conversation with overly flirty colleagues. You’re not responsible for managing their feelings so that they behave professionally. That’s on them. So to the extent that you can, try to shift the awkwardness they’re dumping on you right back over to them — because they’re the ones causing it, not you.

I know that’s easier said than done, but the solution here can’t be that you have to pull back on social relationships that matter in your field while your male colleagues get to go on having them.

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