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I’m having an issue with a co-worker that I’m not sure how to handle. Fergus and I do similar jobs; we don’t work in the same building, though we are in the same complex and often interact due to shared committee work and professional events. He would stop by my office sometimes to chat if he had a reason to be in my building and that was fine. We are also part of a group of colleagues who occasionally meet outside of work for social events (happy hours, sporting events, etc.). We were casually friendly until this summer, when he learned I was getting divorced.
Since then the dynamic has changed considerably. The occasional office visits turned daily and became lengthy (and very hard to shut down other than with a direct “I need to get back to work now”). We live near each other and will sometimes be on the same bus, and he insists on interacting. Today I said “Hi” and then pointedly turned back to my book, headphones on. He reacted by sending me a text message to get my attention and when that didn’t work, poked me in the arm. I’m probably going to change when I leave my apartment to avoid him because I can’t handle that kind of emotional labor first thing in the morning.
At the last happy hour, his attention made me visibly uncomfortable enough that another (female) co-worker noticed and talked to me about it the next day. Apparently he is known in our community for glomming on to any available single woman and then completely misreading any interest. Stories include his leaning in for an unwanted kiss and then blaming the misread on drink and then blithely continuing on. It’s a frustrating reality that no one seems to know how to address. Apparently one woman straight up lost it on him until he got a clue. The rest got boyfriends and he backed off.
Fergus and I will have to continue to work with each other going forward and I don’t want to jeopardize that. I know I have to calmly and directly call him out on his shit and reset the boundary, but I have no idea how to do that. Any suggestions for how and when to approach the situation would be welcome. He’s an otherwise likable guy (the usual excuse) and this is just so awkward. I keep wondering what the hell I did to make him think that this is okay. How did I fuck up the boundary so that he could slide in like this?
You didn’t do anything to make him think this is okay. He’s thought this was okay since long before he met you.
And you didn’t fuck up the boundary. You treated him like a normal person who would follow normal social conventions, until he revealed that he wasn’t, and by that point he had already slipped by the boundary.
People like this — mainly dudes, although not entirely — take advantage of the fact that people — mainly women, although not always — are socialized to be polite. Maybe that’s intentional, or maybe it’s not. Either way, to shut it down, you’re unfortunately going to have to go against that socialization and tell him directly to stop.
And even though he’s the one being rude, you’re going to feel like you’re being rude too, because you don’t normally have to be so direct in telling people to leave you alone. This is important: Don’t let that fear stop you from acting, because that’s exactly what lets boundary-violators continue. Go into it knowing that feeling a bit rude or unkind when you handle this will be unavoidable. That way, when those fears come up, you’ll know they’re normal, you’ll have expected their arrival, and you’ll be better able to push past them.
So, let’s talk specifics. First, for the next few weeks, when he stops by your office for a lengthy chat, tell him that you can’t talk. You’re on deadline, you’re about to get a call, you need to make a call, you need to focus on a project, or so forth. If you feel weird about suddenly saying that every time he stops by when previously you had been letting him stay and chat, you can say something to explain the change. For example: “Hey, my workload has gotten crazy so I’m not going to be able to chitchat anymore.”
If he bothers you on the bus, be direct about shutting it down. Say, “I’m reading and can’t talk right now” or “I’m not up for talking right now.” Since you have to work with the guy, say it nicely the first time you say it. But if he keeps pushing you (or escalates to poking you for attention — what the hell?!), then he doesn’t get Nice You anymore. At that point, shift to a stone-faced “I can’t talk.” Don’t smile, because apparently he takes you being nice as an indicator that you don’t really mean what you’re saying. And it’s okay to sound irked; this is a thing that you get to be irked by. You aren’t being a jerk by using a serious tone with someone who is stomping all over your boundaries and who thinks that his desire for your attention trumps anything you want. And really, sounding serious isn’t rude. (Isn’t it weird that we’ve come to worry that it will be?)
If he gloms onto you at happy hours or other events, say a polite hello and then explicitly end the conversation. Say something like, “I’ve got to go find Jane — see you tomorrow at work,” or “I need to go talk to Ryan — have a good time tonight!” and walk away.
At some point, he might confront you about what’s going on and ask why you never talk to him anymore. If that happens, you have two options. You can go the easy-but-possibly-not-as-effective route of “I’ve just gotten super busy.” This is hard to argue with, but it lays you open to the possibility that he’ll keep checking in over the coming weeks to see if you’ve become any less busy. The other option is to be more straightforward and say something like, “Since I told you I was getting a divorce, you haven’t been respecting my boundaries when I can’t talk or don’t want to talk at work or on the bus. That’s not cool with me.” If he argues (and he will), you can respond, “We don’t need to have a big conversation about this. But you asked, and I wanted to give you an honest answer. I’m still happy to work with you on projects and so forth, but I need you to respect it when I’m not up for talking.”
There’s a risk that this will make him hostile, but it sounds like other women in your office have successfully called him out on similar behavior and he’s moved on. But if for some reason he does escalate or act in ways that concern you, at that point you have something actionable to report and can loop in his boss or HR, who can tell him to cut it out with consequences attached if he doesn’t.
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