There is a a guy at work I’ll call Barry. He and I have been friendly in the past, and then it got weird. He once gave me a MacBook, which was a gift way above and beyond the level of our friendship. We never saw each other socially after work – we were strictly work friends. He has a girlfriend. I have been in a relationship with a man for over 3 years whom I love dearly, and have made no secret of this. When he gave me the computer, I tried to refuse politely, but the way he framed it was “oh I have a ton of these because of my job, it’s just been collecting dust in storage, and your laptop died, so here, please take it.” I reluctantly accepted. I realize now this was a huge mistake.
Over the course of some months, it became clear he was romantically fixated on me. Not interested, I tried to lessen contact – no more conversations beyond, Hi, good morning, <work thing>, etc. If he started talking about his relationship, I excused myself. In the past, he’d cornered me and gone on at length about his relationship problems. The level of detail eventually made me uncomfortable. Well, backing away only made him come on stronger. He started interrupting me at work to compliment me – my dress, my weight, my typing speed. Constant complimenting that was, honestly, bizarre. We’d been Facebook friends. After one last incident in which he complimented me on being a “natural” poet VS an academic poet (I hold an MFA in poetry), I unfriended him. It was because of that remark, plus the cumulative effect of all the weird complimenting and aggressive Nice-Guying at me.
He has been avoiding me since then, which I am 100% fine with. As awkward as it is, I am happy with the outcome. Only, today, a month after the unfriending, I overheard him talking to someone about the poetry compliment on his phone. He has an extremely loud voice and leaves his office door open – across the room from me, fifty feet away, with 12 coworkers in between us, and he knows we can hear him. He was going on in detail about how amazing my poetry is (he’s read ONE poem of mine on Facebook), how he “doesn’t understaaaaand why I am not talking to him! And why can’t she take a compliment! She is crazy!” etc.
My questions: do I confront him? Keep waiting for it to blow over? Do I return the computer? Returning it now will be awkward. But everything about this situation is awkward, so I am not sure if that matters.
-Angry Academic Poet
Dear Angry Academic Poet:
I am cringing on your behalf. And my skin is crawling. And the little hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. You’ve got a favor-sharker (I gave you a laptop you didn’t want and complimented your poetry DAMMIT I was being NICE DAMMIT you OWE ME) here and those are hard to shake loose even when they aren’t in your workplace where you have to see them every day. I’ve been on the receiving end of stuff like this, and in my experience the ones with girlfriends are worse because they use it as a shield, like, they creep on you when they think no one is looking but when you speak up they get all self-righteous, like “I have a girlfriend, I couldn’t possibly also be creeping on you, lol ur fat” and you have to dig down and say “So you won’t be walking me to my car or trying to give me backrubs or listening in on my phone calls or making comments about my body anymore? Phew, that’s good news!”
It hurts when you want to be friends with someone more than they want to be friends with you, but when someone is giving you clear “go away” or “stop doing that thing” signals, throwing a tantrum in a public way is not the way to handle it. If he really wanted to fix the situation, he’d talk to you directly. “I feel like I’ve offended you in some way. I don’t want to make it weirder, but I would like to apologize and find a way to work together without it being awkward.” Which would open you up to say “I enjoyed seeing you at work, but it was a mistake to mix work friends and real life friends/I am cutting back on social media/I would rather just keep work at work. I’m sorry that hurt your feelings, I hope we can still be good colleagues” or whatever. Even if you don’t talk it out, if he can be polite and work-friendly, you can do the same, and it can blow over that way.
If he does not go gently into that good Work Colleague category, here are some recommendations for stuff you can do to protect yourself and minimize this dude’s inappropriateness, or at least how much it is allowed to affect you at work.
Step 1: Print out and save every weird communication from him in a folder in case this becomes an HR issue, and document all past stuff. If he chills out and leaves you alone, it won’t ever affect him and he won’t ever know about it, but if he doesn’t, it will come in handy.
Step 2: Say nothing to him about the comment you overheard. Assume he is either oblivious or that he wanted you to hear it. Same difference – engaging only confirms that you’re listening and paying attention to him, and right now you want to starve him of that attention so that his fixation will die. Just document the conversation the way you did when you wrote me and add it to your “weird stuff” folder. Let him save face, hope that it will blow over. It probably will, with time.
Step 3: The laptop…
I have so many questions about it, like, did he give you a work laptop for your home use? As in, you have a work computer that you use and this laptop? And he took this laptop from work? It sounds pretty possible that it wasn’t his to give you in the first place, and the laptop belongs to your employer. Even if it was his to dispose of, I would give it back to him. Wait until he’s out of the office to physically put it in there, and send a note like this from your work email address:
“Hey Barry, I’m all sorted out laptop-wise, so here is the one you lent me. Thanks so much.”
The non-creepy response to that, by the way, is “Ok, thanks! Glad you were able to put it to use” and then stowing it away where it goes. If this is all a big misunderstanding, if he just genuinely wants to be friendly and kind and doesn’t understand, this is where he could show that he respects the boundary you’re setting by respecting the boundary. Returning the item and saying that you are returning the item is pretty unambiguous. If he sends weird emails back to you or insists on a conversation or makes the laptop into some emotional issue, document the shit out of everything like you’ve been doing. If he insists that you keep the laptop or makes any inappropriate or personal remark, I would say, ONCE, in writing, from your work email: “Your reaction is disproportionate and is making me very uncomfortable. Let’s close this topic of discussion and stick to work topics.”
Then do not reply to any communication that is not explicitly about work, while continuing to document anything untoward that he says or does. If it becomes an HR issue you want a paper trail of you being reasonable and professional and also evidence that you’ve asked directly for the behavior to stop. I don’t know what your workplace or supervisor is like, or when exactly is the right time to bring it to someone’s attention, but if things escalate and you have a conversation with your boss, try this: “Barry and I were friendly, but then he got very intense and made a lot of personal comments that made me a bit uncomfortable, so I’ve been trying to keep our conversation to work topics only. Have you ever had to deal with anything like this before? Do you have any suggestions for how I should handle things going forward?” You can reassure your boss that things will be cool as long as Barry keeps things professional, but it’s good to get his or her take on stuff like this in case things do escalate.
You can use a broken record approach verbally any time Barry breaks his Avoiding You protocol and lapses back into too-personal comments. “Thanks, but please don’t make comments about my body, I don’t like it.” + “Work question?” “Thanks, but I don’t actually want the laptop. How is Work Thing going?” Then document the comment and your response.
You are actually potentially covering his ass by treating the laptop like a loan, and if he’s too self-involved to see it, that’s his problem. You don’t have to help him save face with mutual coworkers, by the way. If someone asks “What’s with Barry? He seems weirdly fixated on you” you are allowed to say “DUDE SRSLY” or “I wanted to keep work at work, and he wanted to be friends outside of work” you’re not the one making it weird. Witnesses to his weirdness and your professionalism are helpful to have.