#527 Creepers d’Un Certain Age, Business Edition.

Hi Captain,

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.

70 thoughts on “#527 Creepers d’Un Certain Age, Business Edition.

  1. ha! i was thinking about replying to the email and including others, but worried that might be passive aggressive. glad to know someone else thinks it’s a good solution. cuz screw all that “private” communication in the work place.

    1. That was also the first thing I thought of when I read the email. Maybe it is passive aggressive. It certainly isn’t a direct and open way of dealing with the problem, but the problem itself isn’t direct and open. When a person behaves the way Jim does, and manipulates the situation so they have plausible deniability of the problems they cause, I think the people they’re bothering have every right to be underhanded and passive aggressive in trying to fix the situation.

      1. I don’t think it’s passive aggressive at all – as the Captain says, if there isn’t anything weird and non-businessy going on, why would it be weird to share with coworkers? It’s refusing to be manipulated, not manipulation itself.

        1. That’s totally true. I guess what I meant is that people could accuse LW of being passive aggressive, but you’re absolutely right. If Jim doesn’t think he’s doing anything creepy, there’s no reason not to share his emails with others.

    2. When men with power do it, it’s “diplomacy” or “statecraft.” When women without power do it, it’s “passive aggressive.”

      1. BASICALLY.

        Also, Captain, you are a genius. I enjoyed so much reading your plan, it was like watching a short movie with that plot and the female protagonist ending up victorious 🙂

      2. Definitely agree. But I’d add that, when men without power do it, it’s still often called diplomacy, and when women with power do it, it’s still often called passive aggressive (or manipulative, or bitchy, or underhanded, etc.)

    3. Chiming in to agree! That’s absolutely how I would have handled it as well. Also known as “does your boss know you’re being a creep”?

  2. A polite “I appreciate the compliment but I prefer to keep this conversation strictly professional” when he starts talking about your pretty eyes or whatever might be an option, especially if your boss won’t get on board, but I can understand how that might seem daunting.

    1. That’s always an option! In the answer, I was thinking more about putting some backup in place in case “Jim” explodes all over her & the company so the LW can feel more supported in speaking up. This is an individual sexist, but sexism in the workplace isn’t an individual problem.

  3. I just want to say that this isn’t your fault. Your giggles isn’t a flashing sign that you like-like him back. The same with joking about him with Lindsey and your boss. It’s only human to joke about stuff that makes us uncomfortable. It can take the edge off and without jokes, hey, a whole world of stand up comics would be out of a job.

  4. Forwarding cutsey emails to everyone is a great idea. I love social jiu-jitsu.

    Recording phone calls might be a good addition to your note taking. If you live in a dual-consent state or in different states, you’re legally required to tell Jim that you’re recording the call “for note-taking”, which won’t be a lie. (You should definitely get your boss’s permission before doing this.) Plus, if your phones don’t have a recording feature, or even if they do, it gives you a plausible reason to put Jim on speakerphone and have your voice recorder sitting next to it. Go ahead, Jim, tell the entire office and a tape recorder how pretty you think the LW’s eyes are.

    1. Don’t record a conversation unless you know it’s legal in your state (if you’re in the US). Some states require all parties to consent to recording and others only require one.

  5. I think getting the boss in on this also provides another benefit: Someone in a position of power is clearly backing up the LW and Lindsay. Clearly Jim doesn’t respect the two of them, and probably women in general, but by Boss being there, it sends a clear message that this behavior is now being headed off by a superior (and a male? I’m assuming Boss is male since they do not seem to be subjected to the same behavior, but am aware I may be mistaken).

    This is something that is often employed in consent advocacy: By calling out ANY consent violations, the community makes it clear that none of those violations are welcome or overlooked, and it sends a message to consent violators that that community is not a safe place to hide/prey on potential victims. If Boss can back you up, you will be sending the message to Jim that you and Lindsay are not safe targets for his harassment.

  6. I agree that Boss is flaking, but at least by “magnanimously” offering you to take care of it, he’s acknowledging that there’s a Problem that is serious enough to need addressing. I’d be willing to bet he has no idea how to help; he’ll be grateful to have a blueprint. And don’t be afraid to suggest that his handling of Jim will burnish his own credentials (everybody wants somebody on staff who knows how to handle this kind of thing deftly).

    Thank goodness times have changed. Back in the Pleistocene, my company had a Bigfoot client who liked to creep on the young girls. Once, after helping him with a transaction, I extended my hand to shake his. Instead, he took my hand and put my fingers in his mouth. In public, in full view of Boss. Because this was the Pleistocene, nothing was done to suggest anything was anyhow amiss. I really wish I’d wiped my saliva-covered fingers on his $1000 suit. And then kneed him in the groin. But I didn’t. Thank goodness times have changed.

    1. That reminds me of the time I had a meeting with a guy I was fining quite a lot of money for breaking various and assorted environmental laws. He repeatedly tried to hold my hand and was just generally inappropriate the whole time. We usually walked people out of the building after these meetings, and this time my (female) boss decided to walk with me and this guy because of how weird he was. She wasn’t able to stop the surprise kiss-attack, though. Yuck.

    2. I just flailed my hands around in the GROSS GROSS signal and my partner gave me a “what the hell?” look. But I had to. UGH.

      Something similar happened to me when I was very young. I was introduced to someone who took my hand, turned it over, and licked my wrist. (This was in the SCA, where non-consensual hand-kissing Is a Thing.) I was only nineteen at the time and completely creeped out and in shock and I froze. I really wish I had pulled my hand back and cracked him across the face with it. Or at least called him a shithead.

      1. Ohhhh, god. Non-consensual hand-kissing –> best description of certain SCA types I’ve ever heard. Augh.

        The hubs has hypothesized that some guys like SCA and similar activities because it at least gives them a *script* to follow when dealing with women — I wonder if it would help if organizations like that would rewrite the script to make it less icky?

    3. If there was EVER a time to blurt “I just squished a spider with that hand” it was right then. EW!

  7. I just wanted to point out this sentence in the original letter: “Any ideas for me, that would minimize any damage to the business relationship?” This sounds like the corporate version of something I’ve seen mentioned a lot on this blog, the “How can I have this conversation without hurting X’s feelings?” I wish I could remember the name/number of the post where the Captain laid out that pattern explicitly and clearly, and talked about how sometimes “not hurting feelings” is not a realistic goal for these conversations. I think the same thing may apply here too–a fact that is implicit in the Captain’s original reply. (“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?”)

    LW, I think that maybe this anxiety is a big part of what makes you handle this situation differently than you would socially. You’d probably handle it differently if you were self-employed, too (and here I speak from experience). I think that whoever tackles this problem, whether it is you or your boss, probably needs to own the possibility that doing right by you could cause some damage to your company’s relationship with Jim, and needs to be okay with that. Some people will only do business with service providers that they can bully or harass. Those people are terrible clients. You can’t ensure that this problem will go away and Jim will feel fine about it and keep doing the same volume of business with your company: that is outside your control and even your boss’s control. If you do decide that you want to stay on the front lines of attack here, it is absolutely vital that you get a sense of what risk you are taking in doing so, and whether you have the full support of your company if Jim takes his business elsewhere over this, as the Captain says. Don’t go to battle over this without that level of support, thinking that you can somehow shut this down completely without ruffling feathers: it’s a losing battle. It’s like trying to break up with someone without hurting their feelings.

    1. re: terrible clients.

      i can relate an experience here too.

      fairly recently i was the victim of unwanted contact by one of my clients, while working onsite at an event. we are both the same gender, and it happened in a room full of people, but even so, i was so frozen at the time – you have no idea how you’ll react in the situation.

      later on, i was trying to laugh it off and brought it up to my boss, in a joking “haha isn’t our client TOO MUCH” way, and he was absolutely floored. to say he took it seriously was an understatement.

      this is our biggest account and i was terrified of losing them, i didn’t want to rock to boat and make our difficult relationship with this client even worse. i told him i was willing to pretend it never happened. but, my boss, being the definition of bosswesome, didn’t care. he cared about his employees being treated correctly and professionally.

      he called the vp right away, and the offending employee’s supervisor, and they all had a meeting. fortunately, this (very large) corporation took it seriously as well, apologized to me formally, asked the offending employee to leave the event, and ultimately that person got fired.

      i felt really bad that someone lost their job because of a poor judgement call.

      but you know what? i was not responsible for making that mistake. it’s the same as assault (and i guess, technically, i was assaulted). it’s never the victim’s fault. there was nothing i did that forced them to take that action with me.

      and my boss knew that, and big corporation x knew that too. granted, they were probably scared of a lawsuit too.

      the fact that my boss immediately knew the right thing to do, and prioritized that over any business deal or money really meant a lot to me.

      1. I am so sorry you were subjected to disrespectful behaviour.
        I am also so glad that you have a boss that obviously values his employees and makes advocating clearly for their safety a priority as soon as it is brought to his attention.
        The silver lining is knowing your boss has your back, which is incredibly valuable.

    2. And always, in Age of Internet, “taking their business elsewhere” *isn’t* the worst that can happen. There are myriad ways someone with a grudge can make life difficult for a company online. Bad Yelp! reviews, anonymous complaint blogs full of name-dropping, angry Facebook posts of accusations or flat-out lies… even the least tech-savvy angry former customer or employee doesn’t have to exert themselves too much to make your online PR image a source of constant headaches. And this kind of behavior is of course more common in people who already have issues with professional boundaries and have a lot of emotion invested in what should be a work relationship.

      Reminds me of how, when getting a restraining order, you have to tell your harasser where you live and work so they can stay away from you. A normal person would take the hint. The kind of person you have to get a restraining order against lives to test those boundaries. The worst kind of catch-22.

      1. Counterpoint: sometimes people are really bad at trying to rub your name in the dirt.

        I was looking up reviews for an apartment company and one of them was, “COCKROACHES RAINED FROM THE CEILING AT ALL TIMES!!1” The landlord’s reply was that the person had trashed the apartment and done structural damage. Not saying they can’t make you look bad but they can also just make themselves look bad too.

  8. 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.”

    I don’t have any advice, but holy hell this. At my current job I am so torn about advocating for myself around trans issues because, on one hand, I’ve completely given up on things ever getting better for myself at my workplace – but I’m also hyper-aware of how any actions I might take would reflect on future trans employees or clients we might serve.

    If I don’t say anything, then I’m afraid the next trans employee or client who comes along will get hit with the full force of this shit. If I do say something, then I’m “rocking the boat” and “making things difficult” and I wonder whether my bosses will end up implicitly not hiring trans people because they think trans people are just too much trouble. It drains so much of my time and energy trying to figure out all this shit, while also trying to have the time and energy to do the things that are ACTUALLY my job.

    It’s a shitshow, and so much solidarity to people who are dealing with anything like this at their workplace.

    1. I really think this is beyond your responsibility (and capabilities). Meaning: you cannot and should not shoulder the responsibility of what others might do to other trans people. The people at your company are shit. You are not. In a situation like this, it is really ok to do what is best for you, personally. Especially as it’s about getting food on your table.
      Because the thing is? If the people at your job want to be assholes to trans people, they will. And if you speak up, that could either make them more aware, at least in the long run, or more shitty to trans people later. You just don’t know. If you don’t know, then why carry that burden? Take care of yourself. (I’m writing this as a trans* person.)

      1. And it’s not like if you are putting your energy at work into having it be the safest place for you at that moment, people can say “oh well, now you can’t be a strong advocate outside the workplace because blah blah practice what you preach jadda.”

        Advocacy when it’s not at work gives you lots of things. You have the support and policies of organizations you work with. Or, you have the ability as an individual to say “not okay, I gotta go.” When you are advocating, really you are there in the capacity of Thinking About Context Person.

        At work, self protection matters. It matters a lot. Taking care of yourself matters the most. That need is one reason why labor rights advocacy exists, .

        Also, I am really super sorry your workplace sucks massively.

    2. “I’m afraid the next trans employee or client who comes along will get hit with the full force of this shit.”

      You are getting hit full force with this shit, right now. Cut yourself some slack. While we’d all like to make our work places better for the people that come after us, it does not rest on you to clean up this space when everyone else is littering.

      It’s sad, but I think the next trans employee or client will know about what to expect. They may be less equipped to deal with it than you, or they might be more. You can’t know. Make the work place liveable for you. That might mean speaking out or that might mean keeping your head down, but changing the entire work place for all trans people who come in contact with it sounds like a tall order.

  9. I think the Captain’s script for your boss is a good one. It’s possible that he might not realize that he’s letting you down — from his perspective, he offered to help, then perhaps thought he would let you take charge instead of stepping in and so far that plan seems to be working or you would have said something, right? My boss (who is Super Plus Plus Awesome) sometimes gets overly protective of his people and has to be reminded that I don’t need him to jump in for me because I am an adult and can handle stuff; on the flip side, maybe your boss was trying to be mindful of not undercutting you. Maybe not. You won’t know until you say something.

    So say something. I often couch these conversations in the guise of asking for advice. “Hey, Boss, wanted to talk to you about Jim. He’s becoming inappropriately personal and weird and I would like to say something to him about it, but, of course, I don’t want to cause problems. What would you suggest?”

    This will serve two purposes in that (a) you’re letting your boss know this problem hasn’t gone away and is starting to bug you and (b) it will let you get a read on how your boss feels about the situation. It’s possible that Jim isn’t as big a wig at his company as he would like to think and your boss would be fine with you issuing a polite and professional verbal smackdown. Or he might have to be worked around. Or Boss might be able to go to Jim’s boss and have him reeled in (Jim might be a Missing Stair at his office, especially if he’s always been a challenge to work with as you describe).

    This is a really long way of saying that I think the first step is to go back to your boss. I know your question asked for how to handle it yourself, but in the business environment, best to get a read on the situation first before taking further action.

  10. Does your boss have a boss? It’s really uncool that he handed this back to you, and he has successfully put all of the blame onto you if Jim’s harassment effects the company’s relationship with that client (which it probably will). I would escalate this issue as far up the chain as possible, in order to fully protect your job and standing in the company.

    Aside from that, I would definitely do what the Captain recommended: tell whoever is highest up that a client is making you uncomfortable (because they really do need to discuss this with Jim’s boss), then start cc’ing your boss on every. single. interaction between the two of you (don’t pick and choose, just make it a regular thing; your boss can always ignore the emails, but every single cc will serve a purpose).

    1. Also, while you will want to keep his calls to a minimum with the help of your boss, would it be possible to put all of his calls on speakerphone? It might not do much, but if he knows there’s a high possibility of him being overheard, it might also help keep him professional.

      1. RELENTLESSLY CHEERFUL ICILY POLITE TONED LW: Oh hi Jim! I am glad you called because I have some questions. But hang on just a second. I am going to put you on speaker phone! [The Boss has me holding two pieces of china together while the repair glue sets/ I am knitting a marmoset/ I am putting up wallpaper/ my hands are full (of the night).] ‘Kay? Thanks!

        RCIP LW: Oh, Jim, I am sorry, I can barely hear you. Something is up with my receiver. Let me put you on speaker phone.

        RCIP LW: Hi Jim. Hang on, Imma putcha on speaker phone! The four horsemen of the apocalypse are riding through and I am trying to read the maker’s name on Famine’s saddle.

        1. ie: give them any old horseshit reason. Just make it clear you have them broadcasting to the office.

          I have an ear infection and can’t use the receiver.

          My boss and his boss and her boss want in on this.

          We are poking our eyes out with pencils as a form of call survival recreation.

          I am de-oiling a penguin as a service project.

          1. Starting now I’m going to use “I am de-oiling a penguin” as my go-to excuse for positively everything.

          2. You could also pull a “my boss is doing an evaluation on how we deal with clients over the phone so I will be putting you on loudspeaker today so he can listen in.”

            Or, if you can record phone conversations, “we will be recording this conversation as an example for training and quality assurance purposes.”

        2. Is it necessary to warn someone that they’re on speakerphone? I’m really liking the idea of a scenario in which Jim starts up with this kind of shit thinking it’s just the two of them in a cosy ol’ phone call where he can be as much of a dick as he likes, and suddenly the LW’s boss’s voice chimes in in shocked disapproving tones “Good gracious, Jim, what an extraordinary thing to say!”

          (Of course, that would mean the LW wouldn’t get the chance to use the ‘de-oiling a penguin’ line…)

          1. It’s POLITE to warn people that they are on speakerphone, and to identify who else is in the room. “Hi Jim, I’m here with Boss and we want to go over x.” That is generally what I’d advise and what I would do.

            But your scenario was what I was imagining in my response, because I think it might be valuable to get Jim on the record doing this in front of other people.

          2. I’ve always thought it was super-obvious when you’re on speakerphone. It sounds different, there’s a little bit of an echo, and the cutting in and out thing based on who’s talking has always been a giveaway for me. YMMV.

            Also, it’s possible that I just haven’t worked with more modern equipment, that may minimize such nonsense.

          3. @ Karyn: no, it’s still pretty obvious if you’re on speakerphone even with modern phones. The echo is still a thing, and the call tends to get choppier.

    2. I agree with the suggestion to copy your boss in on every email you send to Jim. I’ve done this before when a work situation was difficult, along with having a brief chat with the boss to let them know, “I’m finding x situation awkward, so I’ll be copying you in on all relevant correspondence and would appreciate your advice”.

      1. Agreed. My boss – who is super protective of us – has had me cc or bcc her on emails with difficult people, depending on if she wants to make a point to the person that Boss Lady is in on things.

    3. “start cc’ing your boss on every. single. interaction between the two of you (don’t pick and choose, just make it a regular thing; your boss can always ignore the emails, but every single cc will serve a purpose).”

      I heartily agree with this idea. If it is every. single. time. then there is little room for “but whyyyyyyyyyyy (are you sharing my creepy emails but not the ok ones)?”. It’s just a new policy. You’re just keeping your boss in the loop. The boss wants to increase “transparency”. The CEO wants more “accountability”. The company is implementing a tracking system and this is how things automatically get into the system. Whatever you, your boss, and your coworker agree on as The Reason We’re Doing This.

      If you go this route, it’ll work best if your coworker is doing it as well, possibly including cc’ing both her and your boss on every. single. email.

  11. I had a situation at my work where a client became fixated. I was working as a veterinary technician, and he always requested that I handle his pet and would make comments like “now I know everything with Fifi will be okay because you’re here!”. At first it was actually a good feeling…but his comments gradually got creepier little by little, but never so overtly that I felt comfortable saying anything.

    Then one night I was holding his struggling dog and he came up behind me and also tried to hold his dog…in a position that basically put his hand on my breast. I honestly couldn’t tell if he MEANT to do it in the moment, but as soon as the dog relaxed and things were calmer, I was 99.9 sure that yeah, that guy was a creepy asshole. He actually tried to call the hospital later that night and asked to talk to me to apologize.

    And that was when I asked my boss to cockblock the bastard. I felt guilty and upset that I had said anything earlier, and worried it would appear I was leading him on in some way. I also felt like I should have been able to handle it myself, but I felt very sure that if I directly said anything, he would have brushed it off as an accident. But my boss understood, and from then on if he had an appointment I was elsewhere. If he called with a question, I was elsewhere. If he came in while I happened to be upstairs, there was a sudden emergency downstairs.

    Sometimes part of a boss’s job is running interference. I’ve done it myself for employees under me. That doesn’t make the employee weak or unable to handle their job, because tolerating creepy, sexist assholes who make inappropriate comments is not in anyone’s job description.

  12. Can you ask the other company to replace jim with somebody else as your contact person?

    It might be something you can talk to your boss about, if there’s going to be any boss-to-boss communication happening (which I think there probably should be, since I think any boss should hear that their direct report is behaving like Jim is).

    If you can’t replace him as his company’s point of contact, you can use that Dream of Never Talking To Him Again to guide what you ask for at your company. Support call from Jim’s Company? Goes right to Boss or some other person, or the speakerphone support, or whatever else you’ve got.

    Your documentation is good and useful, because at some point you may be making the point that this guy is so awful, your company should cancel the contract. This is a real thing that might happen — you might be more valuable than a particular contract. You might not be. But it’d be good to think about, if this gets so bad that you’d rather quit than talk to this guy ever again, if you’d be unemployed.

    Finally…. the part of me that hates having pictures online, especially for people in customer support jobs, that part thinks that your company should buy some stock photos and swap them out. And, because I am squicked by dudes who only talk to women when they have pictures, I also think you should lock down your social networking accounts so he’s not icking over you at other times. Because ew.

  13. Seconding Kellis about not thinking that your inadvertent giggles mean it’s your fault. Look up the phrase “displacement behavior” if you want to find out what’s going on there behind the scenes in your head.

    The fact that he’s being very careful to do this only when there are no witnesses (keeping it a case of “he said, she said”) is pretty much dispositive that this guy is a well-practiced sexual predator and abuser of the “plausible deniability” variety. You and Lindsey are not the first women he’s done this to, nor are you likely to be the last.

    This shit is like cockroaches, it thrives in the dark. I agree that the approach likeliest to succeed is to bring your boss in as a witness in such a way that Jim knows it’s happening. Done right, he’ll have a hard time finding any reason to complain, because it’s all about making sure HE gets the service he needs from your business, right?

  14. I think the Captain’s comments are spot on. The post also reminds me of this recent post on a parenting blog:

    I’ve long thought that one thing that feeds rape culture is that some men never stop using pester power as adults and in both the case of the kids being bullied and the client making inappropriate comments, the solution is similar: have an adult come in and reset what is appropriate behaviour. For kids, you might need to remind everyone that things are more fun when you play nicely, but for adults, the sanctions could be a lot harder. Exposing the co to a sexual harrassment suit is the sort of thing that gets people fired for gross misconduct.

    Pretty much all companies have clauses in their contracts about professional tone being used in business interactions and appropriate use of company resources like email. So if I were your boss, I’d be contacting Jim’s company’s HR dept, alerting them to this situation, and asking them to deal with it as a matter of urgency. And then taking on all comms with the co until Jim is dealt with.


      1. At one point, the UK ran a reality TV show about training problem dogs back to back with Supernanny, which is basically the same thing with children.

        The solutions were the same an almost embarrassing number of times. Though to be fair, often that had to do with the parent/owner not considering the child/dog’s side of things. Here, the dog is just making a mess in the LW’s bed for shits and giggles, and her boss should be wielding the clicker of correction.


        1. South Park had an episode where Cartman’s mom has a dog trainer over to help her out with Cartman. Because she’s tried every reality show there is, except for The Dog Whisperer. Obviously, the show has more grossness than okay parts, so if you want to watch the episode (it’s called Walking Cartman), beware.

          1. The sad thing is, clicker training does work on kids. And adults. And really, anything that has a brain, can hear the clicker, and can feel a happy from a treat. Same with other training principles, like positive reinforcement training. Operant conditioning is a thing because it works, because it’s just another kind of learning.

            I’m sure south park did it terribly, though, because South Park.

  15. “Jim” either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that emails are not private. Ever. Regardless of whether they are copied or forwarded. The recipient has copies, obviously. But if “Jim” has been foolish enough to send his inappropriate emails using his work account, then his company has copies of them too and can easily verify his behaviour.

    This may be useful if the situation ends up involving others at “Jim’s” company.

  16. Further proof creepers are not just trying to get laid. This guy has never met her. He knows he never will. “Getting laid” is not on the table. Likeliest is that he discovered she’s young and pretty and it provoked all sorts of resentments he has against women, and a desire to take those resentments out on her by creeping. So irritating.

    1. Yep. Guys like this enjoy the whole process, including the the other person’s discomfort and dismay and worry about what will happen if they complain.

  17. “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. ”

    I actually giggled evilly when I read that. It’s such an elegant and polite solution (or if not an out-and-out solution, a step toward one).

  18. Yes! Thank you! I recently had a job where a contractor was harrassing me because I am a woman. We were paying this guy so much money to do a job. He kept calling my boss and making up bullshit about me. I asked my boss multiple times to back me up – boss knew it was bs – but eventually i became seen as the trouble maker because I kept asking for help to deal with this contractor. Help was never received and then the boss had the gall to wonder why our relationship had deteriorated. For some reason I was meant to continue to be able to work professionally with someone who kept attempting to undermine me.
    You explained what happens so clearly, thank you

  19. Whish the LW would leave out the assumptions about the guys mental health status or that he might have a learning disability.
    A guy being a creep is a full on male thing and literally fuckall to do with having a mental health disorder or a disability. To say that is to excuse that kind of behaviour as inevitable (and therefor afford more power and deniability to these creeps) and also paints people with mental health issues and disabilities as being predatory. People with disabilities or mental health problems are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of this kindof creepy shit.

    1. I didn’t get the impression that the LW was ascribing creepy behavior to Jim’s possible mental health status, just that erratic behavior and communication was part of the overall picture.

  20. Reblogged this on Swift, like Shadows and commented:
    “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.”
    – Captain Awkward, quoted for emphasis and for truth.

  21. LW, can you come up with a plausible reason to forward one of Jim’s inappropriate emails to a manager at his company? They may be horrified to learn about his behaviour. If his company is alerted to the situation, their HR department could handle it internally. Since he is difficult to work with anyway, they may already be looking for a reason to fire him, and you would be handing them a reason on a golden platter. Also, have you asked Alison Green of AskAManager.com for advice?

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