Reader question #32: Saying “no” at work…to the parade of guys who stop by my desk all day.

"You're under the unfortunate illusion that I like you and want to chat."

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.

Advice?

Sincerely,
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?

  • “Wow.”
  • “Really.”
  • What?”
  • “Huh.”
  • “Noted.”
  • “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?”

NOT.

YOUR.

PROBLEM.

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.

  • “Wow.”
  • “Really.”
  • What?”
  • “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!

19 comments
  1. karak said:

    Questioner, I’d advise you practice saying these things into a mirror, or enlist a friend (especially an understanding male one) to practice with.

    Also, remember this: THEY made YOU uncomfortable first. You’re simply pointing that out. YOU are not doing ANYTHING to them. Had they never approached you, this whole thing could have been avoided. If they are angry/upset/butthurt/annoyed, it’s because they chose to behave in a bad way. IT’S THEIR FAULT.

    • Aunti Disestablishmentarian said:

      Yes! Totes agree. Practice, Practice, Practice. Also fun, practice with a friend in a place like a bar to get used to setting boundaries with other people around. You will get better!

    • JenniferP said:

      Practicing is a great idea.

  2. Mortisha said:

    So that is how it is done in the corporate world.

    I usually say “Does this look like a bar Bud?” or “You guys want to do to your giggling elsewhere”

    You are a receptionist not a preschool wrangler. They get in the way of your job tell them to sod off- pref go play in the traffic!

    • You sound like you work in a place that’s a little rougher around the edges 😉

    • JenniferP said:

      Hilarious! And for an advanced naysayer, totally the way to go, but maybe not for beginners.

  3. Marie said:

    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.

    Oh God, yes. Just two weeks I told a coworker that I went out of my way to be polite and friendly to everyone at work and that I had the right to expect the same behaviour from her. It felt great (and I’m now a hero for all her underlings).

    • JenniferP said:

      It’s a fallacy that if you never make waves or push back that everyone will like you and you will never have problems. People respect people who can say no.

  4. geekgirl99 said:

    I definitely want to hear what happens on this one – please let us know!

    • JenniferP said:

      Indeed. I would welcome a humorous daily log as a running post topic.

  5. I was going to add my two cents, but after reading the whole post, I don’t have to: you pretty much covered it all. It helps that she works in security, because she’s likely required to keep a constant log of what’s happening around her anyway.

  6. piny said:

    This is so cool.

    Can I make another small suggestion? Take care of yourself as you implement your back-off plan. Make sure you’re eating enough food, getting enough sleep, and not drinking too much coffee. As best you can, anyway. Take walks, lunch with a friendly coworker. You don’t want to feel tired or jittery. I’ve had toxic office problems in the past, and trying to deal with Chronic Asshole from the Corner Office on an empty stomach and two cups of office swill is…not a recipe for success. Especially if confrontation makes you anxious.

    • JenniferP said:

      That is great advice. It’s hard to be cool if you’re stressed out.

  7. Regann said:

    Depending on the management style of the place and the importance level of some of the OP’s “admirers” one surefire way I’ve seen to clear a desk at my job (esp. in an open area like reception) is the whole ‘hey, I’ve gotten some comments that it’s too chatty/noisy/crowded up here, can you cool the drive-bys?’ At my workplace, where the managers who inefficient but terrifying, the hint of a manager’s eye gets people away in a hurry. This, of course, will probably work better on low level employees than highers up, but it gives the ‘hey we’re at work’ the gravitas of ‘you’re getting me in trouble.’

  8. 1. Practicing, excellent.

    2. This, excellent: 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?

    I’ve used that one myself.

  9. m said:

    I’m probably a generation older than the letterwriter. Been around the block. 🙂

    Something stood out to me in her letter — where she said that all the guys giving her this sort of attention seem to be from the *same department*. And, they are all of ages and positions (and probably some are married, etc.)

    I’ve had some similar experiences in workplaces and during my master’s degree (average age of students there was 30, so they weren’t kids) which I only really figured out after the fact (and in one case, I was told on my final day at the organization by a male colleague who had always felt bad about it but was too afraid to say anything before I was on my way out the door).

    Because both scenarios below have happened to me, I thought I’d mention that they could be a possibility:

    A. A guy in that particular department might have made up lies about how he’s been with you, how you were easy, how you have a slutty reputation outside of work, etc. This can spur on the other guys to try their chances with you.

    B. The guys in that particular department might have made a bet amongst themselves to see who can be the first one to take you out, kiss you, sleep with you, or something.

    Since this is happening with the workers from only one department, and presumably there are several departments at your company if it’s big enough to have a security desk, do not assume they are each acting alone (it’s possible, but I would doubt it).

    Do not assume they are not talking amongst themselves about you and sharing stories of hitting on you (also possibly spreading lies about having had success with you).

    It is really hard to counteract this kind of thing when there is a dumbed-down macho group mentality going on, particularly when you can’t know if some untruths have been told. It’s also nearly impossible to correct any lies of that sort that have been told about you.

    I know that it might not be the most “modern” and preferable solution, but one way to cut a lot of that behavior out is to make it known that you are in an active romantic relationship with a guy, preferably one who seems a bit intimidating to men who are kind of pushy and jerky, like these guys sound. You don’t really have to be in such a relationship, and of course you need to make sure that you aren’t seen at work to be telling lies about yourself, but in the right way and at the right time, a hint of being firmly unavailable can stop a lot of badgering. Just having a new, mysterious, and substantial-looking guy (could be a friend or brother) come pick you up for a few lunches or surprise you with a bunch of flowers one day can be all that’s needed to get the word out that you are off the market and potentially under someone’s “protection”. (That’s not my actual view, of course, but a lot of guys think this way.)

    Another thing you can do is, if it’s not disallowed, is to, either actually or just pretend-wise, put up a security camera that films your desk area, or just hint that the nearest one already in situ covers your desk, and mention how it might be in the works that the cctv camera tapes of your area will collected and studied by management in order to ensure better service delivery (or whatever) and learning about which departments seem to need the most assistance from security. Letting them know that what they do is going to be witnessed and recorded by someone else who is not in their department might make them act more professionally with you.

    Oh, I think that this post is from a long time ago, but anyway, them’s my thoughts.

    • JenniferP said:

      Ugh, I hadn’t thought of the Bad Teen Movie Macho Bet scenario.

      I agree that the whole “This Vagina is already owned by another man” thing works for getting people to step off, but it makes me roll my eyes into next year. Do you really have to lie that you have a giant boyfriend to get coworkers to stop hitting on you? Then do you have to sustain that lie?

      The words “Sorry, I have a boyfriend” leave an ego-saving “But if I didn’t, I would totally do you!” plausible deniability shield for the dude. I say, strip that shield away and strip it hard. “We’re at work, I am working” should be enough.

      BTW, Letter Writer, how did this all turn out?

  10. K said:

    I wish I had seen this earlier.

    A few months ago a somewhat similar situation involving two fellow PhDs spiraled out of control for me and I’m still struggling with the aftermath.

    While I’m not sure whether the firm approach suggested here would have worked for these particular guys, the advice is helpful in thinking about strategies in case a similar situation ever arises again … which is the one thing that feeds the fears about going back and back out there.

    Just wanted to thank you for that.

    P.S. From bitter experience, the ‘This vagina is already taken’ approach only works for basically decent and clued-in men (which, granted, is the majority). With other more disturbed souls it only escalates the situation. They don’t take that as a kindly disguised ‘No.’ Instead they hear a clear ‘But if I didn’t …’ and take that as an invitation to compete with that guy (real or otherwise) for your attention. Dare you if all that effort only leads to further rejection …

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