I could really use your help with a situation I’ve been dealing with at work. My job is at a small marketing firm, and I have a lot of daily contact with our customers, both over the phone and by email (not in person). One of our customers, whom I’ll call Jim, has always been a bit of a weirdo. He has a tendency to get hung up on small details that are really unimportant, so he’s much “needier” than most of the people we serve, and everyone in my office suspects he has some sort of neurological or mental health issue, based on the way he communicates. For instance, on the phone, he’ll say one thing in a very friendly, “normal” way, and the next time he speaks, his voice will sound completely different and curt, almost as though somebody else has picked up the phone.
Anyway, my co-worker “Lindsay” and I have worked with him on a couple of projects since I started working here this spring. Recently it became apparent that he was getting us confused, probably because we have similar job functions and will trade off on work, and because we are both female and might not sound that different over the phone. At this point, Jim went and found pictures of both of us on the company website and saved them onto his computer, so he could “tell us apart” (which makes no sense, since we’ve never met). He also sent me an email individually telling me I was pretty, and he should have guessed, because I “sound so pretty over the phone.” He also emailed Lindsay and I jointly to comment on our appearances, and included winky faces and LOLs and the like which were not the norm for the professional tone we like to take in our emails. My (male) boss initially offered to speak to him about it, then changed his mind and said he’d let us decide how to handle it. We both ignored his emails and hoped that would be the end of it.
He called me earlier this week and immediately told me he was smiling because he had my picture up in his email and was looking at my pretty face. I completely ignored this comment and asked him a business-related question in a very serious tone, but he kept up the flirty comments throughout the call. Because I was flustered that he did not seem to understand professional boundaries, I could not think of anything to say to change the tone of our conversation, and giggled nervously a few times, which probably did not help his apparent impression of my willingness to participate in his flirtation. Now, every email that does not CC anyone within his own company is filled with the LOLs and declarations of how he “lives for working with [name of my firm].” I feel that each passing incident makes it that much harder for me to speak up and put him in his place. I dread talking to him.
My company is tiny, tiny, tiny, and we do not have HR. I have documented each of these exchanges, and have joked around about it with Lindsay and my boss. Now I don’t feel so jokey about it, I want it to stop. I think my boss could still address this for me, but I would much rather try to take care of it myself first. At this point, I’m at a bit of a loss, especially since the guy can be so Jekyll and Hyde, and was already weird to work with before he started with the creepy comments. Any ideas for me, that would minimize any damage to the business relationship? I’m not sure he’ll stop even if asked to directly, so I’d love some follow-up lines to reinforce my boundaries after the line is drawn.
Thank you so much for your advice. I wouldn’t normally be this shy about telling someone to STFU, but I’ve never had a customer get creepy with me before, and it’s obviously different than a random creeper encounter on my personal time.
Sign me —
My Appearance is Irrelevant
Dear Irrelevant Appearance:
I am so sorry you and your colleague are dealing with this.
My opinion is that despite a history of erratic behavior, Jim knows what he is doing is inappropriate and is in control of his actions here. He carefully does the cutesy complimenting stuff only when there are no witnesses, in emails that no one in his office is copied on, on solo phone calls but not in conference calls. If someone asked him about it directly, he’d call it at most a “harmless” flirtation. He probably thinks he’s being charming and is telling himself that you enjoy it. If you didn’t enjoy it, you’d tell him to stop, right?
Ha ha, I joke. I kid. It’s a trap. If you tell him to stop it when he hasn’t done anything overt, he gets to throw his hands up about how you’re blowing it out of proportion and taking everything too seriously. Since he is a high-status Old Man Client and you are a lower-status Young Female Employee, he is used to being catered too around this stuff and having the power structures of society close ranks around him and make his embarrassing problems go away (I’d be surprised if you and your colleague were the first people he’s done this to). If you keep putting up with it, he gets to maintain the illusion it’s all in good fun. He keeps it just innocuous enough that each incident on its own seems like not a big deal.
This kind of stuff thrives on secrecy, power/status differentials, and plausible deniability. So one power that you have is to bring it into the light and make it obvious what he’s doing, and I think there are some effective ways to do that here. Hold that thought for a minute, because we need to talk about your boss for a second.
My opinion is that your boss is dropping the ball here. On the surface he’s “empowering” you and your coworker to handle it yourselves. But what happens if you tell Jim”gently and professionally” that the personal chitchat and comments on your appearance need to stop and your firm loses him as a client? Will your boss back you up then? Do you have that in writing?
Good bosses intervene when this stuff is happening to their employees. That’s part of what they take on with the bigger salary and the nicer chair. Your boss may not know *how* to intervene, which is why he is kicking it back to you (it makes him look all magnanimous in a way that covers up that he’s at a loss), but it’s still his job at the end of the day. So let’s help him out.
A plan is beginning to come together.
My first question is, who in Jim’s organization do you interact with in addition to Jim? Who does Jim regularly copy on official, business-y correspondence? Do you have good relationships with those people?
Because my first suggestion is that the next time you get a LOL-filled email about how he “lives to work with [name of firm]” you reply and copy his team members and your boss + team members with some boilerplate corporate enthusiasm like “We’re sure glad to hear that, your firm is a very important client and we are glad to be a part of your success!” + a work-related question, especially a work-related question that someone else on his team might need to weigh in on.
If Jim is not doing anything inappropriate, there should be nothing wrong with sharing a business-related email among business staff at a business, right? If he gets annoyed that you shared “private” communications, you are forcing him to acknowledge that there was something private to communicate. There’s a chance he will acknowledge his crush on you openly, which allows you to deal with it openly. But there’s also a [greater, IMHO] chance that he will totally withdraw. Victory! Oh, btw, if you do this whole thing with an email where he’s complimenting your firm, it’s insurance against him taking anger at rejection out on the account as a whole. Your manager or the account person or whatever can say “Wait a second, I thought you loved working with us. What is the problem?” Two can play the “I am being deliberately oblivious to the unsavory undercurrents” game.
Now, onto phone calls. If this were a social acquaintance or a family member, I’d suggest cutting the phone call short when something inappropriate comes up, and there might be some avenue for doing that. “Jim, I’m so sorry, I am being called into a meeting. Can you email me the list of what you need and I’ll call you later to go over it?” But this isn’t a solution for always, especially if you need info from him to do your job, so this is an area where your boss can help you specifically in putting a stop to Jim’s behavior (in addition to overall backing you up if things go south).
My boyfriend works retail, and there are sometimes creepy customers who fixate on certain (young, female) employees and ask specially for them to ring them up, help them with customer service issues, etc. What good managers do is instantly and assertively cockblock those dudes. “Sorry, X is busy, but I’ll be happy to assist you.” Or if the customer manages to corner the object of their affection, the manager will call that person away to do another task and take over the transaction themselves. If this is just about shopping, the customer is being helped politely and expertly, so really has no avenue to complain. If this is about an excuse to get the time and attention of a specific employee, management has intervened in a way that saves maximum face for the customer. It’s good, if you work in this kind of environment, to have some kind of code phrase that employees can use to alert each other subtly to what’s going on.
With a little planning, your boss can help you with a version of this. What if your phone calls with Jim were no longer solo-calls? And what if they sometimes involved speakerphone? Get your female colleague on board, and then talk to your boss together.
“Boss, you asked me how we wanted to handle Jim, and I think for the next month, what we’d like is to either have you sit in on our phone calls or be able to transfer a call to you when we feel like he’s crossing the line. Since he’s so careful to pull this B.S. only when he thinks it’s me + colleague, my instinct is that he will stop if he feels like the behaviors might be witnessed by someone else. Can we try that and see if it solves the problem?”
So sometimes, when you’re on the phone and Jim starts talking about the color of your eyes or whatever you can transfer him to your boss – “Huh. Well, Boss has the very latest numbers on that, so I’m going to transfer you to him for now. Have a great day!” and then transfer him away. And sometimes when he does it, he can hear your boss chiming and saying “Huh. Well, I’m looking at X artwork now, and I think the logo needs to be a little bigger. What do you think?” and you can revel in the awkward, awkward silence as Jim backpedals back into professional territory. Or, he may explode as he’s been known to do in the past. It would be pretty good to have a witness for that.
If you get the “But he’s so harmless and ridiculous, surely we don’t have to take it seriously and can keep making fun of him?” response from your boss, you can defeat it. “Taken one by one the incidents are pretty harmless, sure, but they aren’t happening one by one and they are affecting my ability to do my job. I’d like to be able to interact with Jim without dread, and I’d like to at least test this out to see if it makes a difference. Can I count on you?“
It’s some more work for your boss, for sure, and it’s unfair and potentially infantilizing to feel like he’s gotta be included in your day to day work that you handle just fine, but it’s also about trying to manage a client relationship and protect his employees. Your boss should have offered this as an option out of the gate. I feel like in corporate bullying and harassment situations, especially around race, gender, sexuality, disability, there is suddenly this premium placed on rugged individualism. Not only do you have to “gracefully” put up with the bullying without complaint to demonstrate how cool and chill you are, but you have to demonstrate that you can handle it 100% by yourself, or else….somehow…it becomes this vague impression that you are bringing it on yourself or somehow less good at your job and by “you” I mean “People Like Your Kind.” As if you owe it to the idea of Women in the Workplace to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of harassment. The tacit implication being, it would be a whole lot better for the company if you just went along with whatever it was and didn’t complain. This logic, along with its corollary “asking for help is a sign of weakness,” needs to die a hot flamey death. It’s not 1963 anymore. Requesting a little backup from your boss is an example of you handling stuff gracefully and professionally. It’s doing you, the firm, Jim’s company, and ultimately “Jim” a favor, and I hope to hell he sees that.