Dear Captain Awkward,
I am a 23 year old young lady and I work at a major corporation in a major city. I work in the Security department as the Security Administrator and am currently the only female in my department. Also, it is important to note that I don’t sit at a regular desk in a cubicle on an office floor. My desk is located in the main lobby of our building where everyone and their brother can approach to ask questions and where security can keep an eye out.
I write to you because I have been having issues with the males in other departments constantly hitting on me, saying inappropriate things to me, or just being straight up creepers towards me. These guys range from 20 years old to 50 years old. They all mostly work in the same department.
When this happens to me, I find myself conflicted. While my inner voice is screaming “Fuck you, you dirty asshole. You are making me extremely uncomfortable and you need to back the fuck up!”, I usually just get awkward/uncomfortable and try to laugh it off or make a joke. I am not the kind of person who likes confrontation (it makes me nervous – HAHA clearly I am in the wrong field! But I am solely here for administrative purposes.) and I also am afraid of hurting people’s feelings/making THEM uncomfortable/being called a bitch, cunt, whore, prude, etc. (which we all know can happen when you call guys out on their bullshit). I keep thinking “Oh, you don’t want to make things awkward with this person because you DO have to work with them”.
I know what you’re thinking. I guess I have just been conditioned to put other people’s feelings ahead of my own? But at the end of the day, I am resentful and end up kicking myself for not being able to stand up to these dick heads.
How do I go about doing this while maintaining professional relationships? I get the feeling that these guys are the type to get angry/offended and throw it back in my face if I say anything. I just want them to learn that while they think complimenting me on my appearance is a nice gesture, it actually makes me feel uncomfortable and I don’t want to hear it. (Seriously, why do all guys think that telling you you’re “hot” or “sexy” is the highest compliment?? I’d much rather be told that I am funny, charming, intelligent, etc.). Clearly my body language and the subtle hints aren’t enough to get the point across.
The “Pair of Tits” at the Security Desk
Dear Human at the Security Desk:
The good news is that I think it is completely achievable to get all these dudes to leave you alone, and that you will be able to accomplish 99% of it yourself without too much bother. I think most people will take it in stride, and while you are correct that privileged people do not like being called out on their bullshit and sometimes react very badly, their actions do not reflect on you (you didn’t cause them to be assholes, and therefore whether their feelings are hurt is officially Not Important). I’m going to build on yesterday’s post – first tell the people to go away yourself (document), then loop in your boss and ask him to have your back (document), and if that doesn’t work, take it to HR (document). Also, I feel it’s important to say: Your goal is to teach them how to behave around you (not control how they behave toward women at all times in the future – you can’t control that). You won’t let anyone down if you sometimes rely on the White Lies of Social Necessity.
I think it will take about 2 weeks to one month to have the whole thing resolved.
Let’s start out by defining the goals:
1. You want to be able to do your work uninterrupted by constant visits from dudes you work with.
2. You want them to stop practicing their amateur flirting skills on you and treating you like some perk that the company gives them to ogle.
I think you will go far by folding #2 as much as possible into #1. By getting everyone to generally back off and leave you alone, and by focusing the conversation on work (and how you need to concentrate on yours), you’re going to kill 75% of the birds you need to kill with one stone. This is also an easy thing to take to your boss.
Level 1: Basic scripts to use with dudes to get them to go away (variations of the same thing – put them into your own words and change them up depending on who’s talking to you, how many of them there are, what their relative seniority is in the company, etc.):
- “I realize you’re on your break, but I’m not on my break. Can you guys take this conversation somewhere else?”
- “I don’t have time to talk with you, can you take it somewhere else?”
- “It’s already hard to focus in such a public space – can you give me some peace and quiet so I can get my work done?”
- “My boss really wants this stuff on his desk today.”
- “Can’t chat – working.”
Don’t repeat yourself or explain or apologize, just say it like you mean it (and expect that they’ll obey you) and go back to work.
Are you allowed/able to wear headphones? Even if not listening to music, they are a good visual shield against people you don’t want to talk to. If someone looms over you while you’re wearing headphones and makes you do the thing where you have to take one headphone out and ask them what they want, may I suggest a “Is this important?” and if they sputter out something stupidly flirtatious like “Just wanted to say you look, uh, extra cute today!” or “What are you listening to?” you can say “So…not important, then? Well, thanks for stopping by – I need to get back to this ___ (work thing).” And put the headphones back on and snap your eyes back to your screen.
You’re the icy professional shark who is totally focused on work.
Mostly, this is going to go fine, is my prediction, but you should prepare for some pushback, anything from “Jesus, shoot me, why don’t you?” to “Aw, are they working you too hard, little lady?” or “Well, would it kill you to smile, at least?” Some of the guys are going to take it as a “challenge” to try to get you to pay attention to them or prove that they are exceptions to your new work-only persona. This isn’t necessarily sexist by nature. Anytime you haven’t enforced boundaries and then start enforcing them, people notice and react to it, sometimes negatively because….they liked how things were before (when they didn’t have to think about your boundaries) or because they take the new boundaries as an implied criticism of them (which is apt, when you think about it). Combined with sexism and a sense of entitlement, it’s….super-annoying, and as predictable as sunrise, sunset, death, and taxes. So plan for it.
Which brings us to Level 2 – what do you say when you’ve asked someone to go away and they won’t or need to get some stupid comeback in before they do?
- “Is there a problem?”
- “Was I unclear?”
- “Do you need me to repeat myself?”
- “Okay then.“
This going to be ironic coming from me, but economy of words will help you. Again: Do not apologize, do not repeat yourself, do not explain. You’re looking for terse, simple things that say “I expect to be heard.”
Document any troublemakers and/or problematic exchanges.
Now for Level 3: If anyone calls you a “bitch” or says one single gender-related insult or comment in response, your gloves come off RIGHT NOW.
- “I don’t appreciate being called that.”
- “I don’t deserve to be called that.”
- “You cannot speak to me that way.”
- “That is not appropriate.”
- “You are really out of line.“
- “That is over the line. I would like an apology.”
At Level 2/Level 3, loop your boss in.
- “Hey, boss, can I run something by you? I’ve recently gotten fed up with people stopping by to chat with me when I’m working, and I’ve started asking people to take their conversations somewhere else so I can focus. A few people reacted really badly to this (relate the incidents). I wanted to let you know about it, and see if you have any suggestions (like moving your desk?)”
- “When I asked X person to leave me alone so I could concentrate, he called me a ‘bitch.’ It was demeaning and offensive, and I plan to take it up with HR. Do you have any suggestions?“
And listen, you work for a major corporation that is going to have some serious policies in place because they don’t want to get sued when people are assholes. If everyone in that whole department has to sit through some sensitivity training because the “bitch” at the front desk “can’t take a joke?”
They win when you internalize it and wonder what you could have done differently to not make everything so icky. You win when you say “Well, maybe you’ll learn something. Also, it’s 2011 and we live in Canada, so they’ll probably remove your head from your ass for free!” (We USians are not so lucky).
So I think we’ve covered all the general stop-bys and looky-lous – You simply have to work and don’t have time to talk to them. So let’s talk about the people who actively hit on you. These are going to be the people who are the least likely to take a general “Can’t talk, working!” response seriously and the most likely to challenge and/or escalate anyway.
We’ll call this Level 1A, “I know you mean to be nice, but we’re at work…”
- “You said that last time. I know you mean to pay a compliment, but we’re at work.”
- “Thanks, but can you keep comments like that to yourself from now on? We’re at work.“
- “I don’t want to be rude, but I’m not interested in hearing stuff like that at work.”
This might be slightly disingenuous, but for the older guys, it might work to appeal to chivalry and the old “I know you aren’t like that, it’s all these other people (who are exactly like you doing exactly what you do) who are the problem” strategy.
- “I know you just mean to be friendly, but sitting out here you would not believe the stuff I have to hear from guys all day, and by the end of the day it just makes me tired. Can you help me out here?
If they are asking you out on dates over and over and bothering you about that, you’ve got to deliver the bad news in a straightforward way. Depending on whether you basically like the person and think they mean well (just awkward and clueless) vs. think they are being an entitled asshole tells you how much you sugercoat it.
- “It’s nice of you to ask, but I’m not interested in dating you.”
- “You ask me that every day, and I say no every day – that’s because I’m not interested. Please don’t ask me again.“
As for pushback, you’re going to get what pretty women always get when they fail to protect the fragile ego of a man who “went out of his way” to “be a gentleman” and now feels slighted…
- You’re stuck-up and have a huge ego!
- You’re acting entitled to male compliments and attention!
- You’re probably just one of those women, who….(insert a whole bunch of inane cliches about Ladies’ Nights at bars being the great injustice of our time).
- GOD, THEY WERE JUST BEING NICE! LOOK HOW NICE THEY ARE BEING! YOU PROBABLY JUST DATE JERKS INSTEAD OF NICE GUYS LIKE THEM!
If they push back at you (minus actionable sexist language, threats) Level 2A looks much just like plain old Level 2, except the tone gets way more scathing.
- “Did you really just say that?”
- “Are we going to have a problem?”
- “Was something unclear?”
- “Let’s be clear: I do not want you to ask me out or make any comments about my appearance again.“
Document the conversations. This stuff might occur over a few days, like, they might circle back to you and try to bring it up again or get in the last word. A safe response is “I said everything I had to say yesterday, so why don’t we drop it and get back to work?”
If we need to go to Level 3A (this is where they call you a bitch and say anything angry, threatening, make you feel unsafe or really creeped out, use any explicit sexual language AT ALL, may I suggest:
- “That is not how you talk to me.”
- “You are way out of line.”
- “That is not how you talk to coworkers.”
- “I’d like an apology.”
- “Do not make any sexual comments or talk about my appearance ever again.”
- “This conversation stops now.“
Sometimes it helps to repeat the comments back to them, like, “I’m sorry, did you just threaten to ‘teach me a lesson’? That is a very threatening statement and you are making me feel afraid.” Do not swear, do not insult, do not try to get witty comebacks in, just call them out on the behavior and tell them to stop it. Also, obviously: Document and take this stuff directly to HR and your boss. You do not have to put up with this, ever, and if it’s getting to this level you should have quite a file-folder of documentation that shows you acting like a pro and handling it yourself.
I think it’s going to go just fine. You said in your letter that you get nervous around confrontation – the awesome secret is that it gets easier the more you do it and it, and it feels very powerful and good to enforce boundaries and be listened to. Letting go of the need to be liked is powerful stuff. Shaky and rocky at first, but extremely freeing.
In closing, once you get what you want (a reprieve, more privacy), you have everything to gain by letting people save face and being magnanimous. If you’ve said “Back off!” and the person backs off, afterwards just treat them in a normal, friendly way and show them you don’t hold a grudge or think they are a bad person.
Let us know how it goes!