CHS Careerist: He’s Making Me Uncomfortable

Jun 12, 2013

Dear Belle,

Three months ago, I started a new job.  Things were great at first, but now that I’m no longer the “new girl,” some of my co-workers are showing their true colors. 

One of my managers makes a lot of off color jokes and nearly all of my colleagues join in the “fun.”  It makes me really uncomfortable but as a junior person in the office and one of the only women, I don’t know how to respond.  I couldn’t love the work I’m doing more, but I don’t want to work here if this is how the office operates.  Some of my friends have said I just need to ride it out, but I’m not sure I should.

What would you do?

Sincerely, Anonymous

First off, this isn’t about what I would do.  It’s about what you are going to do, and what is right for your situation.  No two women would react to your situation in the same way, and all I can offer is my best advice.  The ultimate decision is yours and yours alone.

Never Say “It’s Okay.”  When people, esp. men, say something that they know is inappropriate around a new person, they tend to half-heartedly apologize.  They’ll look at you and apologize, but most won’t mean it.  In this moment, you have a unique opportunity to stop these comments from happening in the future.

Co-workers, like toddlers, test your limits to see what they can get away with.  Am I allowed to say this around her?  Is she okay with that?  Etc.  If you respond to his “apology” with, “Oh, that’s okay,” or “It’s fine,” you are giving him permission to behave this way.  And yet, women will very often, almost as a reflex, dismiss statements they know are not okay just so they don’t rock the boat.

We don’t want to be seen as not being a team player, and so we condone behavior that isn’t acceptable.  And we need to stop, especially if there are younger women around looking to us to be an example.

Is this common? There are many workplaces in this country where employees regularly tell off color jokes or making comments that any judge would consider sexual harassment.  Most of these workplaces will chock up their unprofessional behavior as “just how we do things” or fostering a “relaxed” environment.  Some even take pride in their unprofessionalism because they see it as striking a blow to the evils of political correctness.

So, yes, just judging from the experiences of my immediate friend group, it is fairly common.  But this does not make it right.  As more offices try to build morale by relaxing the rigid standards of professional decorum, lines get crossed and people start letting their hair down.  Eventually they start talking to their co-workers the way they talk to their friends over drinks.

Resources.  Ask a Manager has written extensively about harassment in the workplace.  So I would definitely spend some time on her site.  The website Your Office Coach also has a good list of steps to follow when you’re deciding how to approach the situation.

Not All Harassment is Sexual.  A co-worker who vocally and routinely belittles your work, your appearance or mocks you is harassing you.  If one of your co-workers routinely makes you the butt of his jokes or goes out of his way to upset you, that is harassment.  So if you dread going to work because you don’t want to deal with a co-workers behavior, you may also want to consider how to address that situation.

Steps Moving Forward.  The first thing I would do is talk to my co-worker.  Uncomfortable? Yes.  Necessary? Yes.  Because if you skip this step, your boss may decide that you are “overreacting” and your co-worker will feel like you’re a tattle tale.  So calmly explain to your co-worker that the joke he told or the statement he made made you feel uncomfortable.  Calmly ask him not to make comments like that around you anymore.  If he tells you that “this is just how we do things,” then explain that it’s frequency doesn’t make it okay and explain that if it continues, you will report him to your supervisor or HR.

What happens from here will determine whether you need to talk to a supervisor or file a formal complaint with HR.  But I believe you should always give the person the chance to correct his or her behavior first.

Keep a Written Record.  If you work in an environment where harassment and uncomfortable situations abound, it’s good to keep a record.  Write down what was said/done, who said it/did it, who else was present and the day and time on which the incident occurred.  Also save any harassing emails that may be sent to you.  And record any conversations had with superiors or HR about the issue.

You may never need to use this information, but it’s very important that you have it.  If things progress to a level where you need to furnish proof, this record will be invaluable to you.

It’s Okay Not to Fit In.  The biggest lesson that women in the workplace need to learn is that it is okay not to be a team player when the team’s game of choice is unprofessionalism and harassment.  It’s okay to walk away from the water cooler or turn down a Happy Hour invite if you don’t want to be a part of the group.  If maintaining a professional-level of decorum means you won’t be fully accepted by your peers at work, then that’s what it means because you are judged by the company you keep.

Harrassment in the workplace is a complex issue, and this post hasn’t touched on a tenth of the options available to women who believe they are being harassed.  If you take nothing else from this article, heed the first part about not saying that harassment is okay.  You don’t need to be aggressive about it, you can simply say, “I don’t find that funny,” or “That’s not really appropriate,” or even just walk back to your desk.  But never tell someone that the joke or comment you know is wrong is okay.

This is an important issue, so hopefully readers will leave their own thoughts in the comments.

Ask The Edit, Style

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  1. E says:

    I’m just wondering how this would work on the Hill. We don’t have HR and politics are already difficult…any advice?

    • Belle says:

      If something is going on, you need to talk to your COS. If your COS is the issue, you need to speak to them directly and if they don’t change, you need to speak to someone in human resources. I would start with CAO. Do not buy into this notion that House or Senate offices are autonomous, they’re not.

      And as for the political side, as long as you handle the situation like a professional and don’t share your dirt publicly, you should be fine. I’ve known two people (one man, one woman) who left congressional offices due to problems with harassment and by not “speaking out of turn” and keeping it in house, they kept their future options clear.

      • Z says:

        I can’t recommend the Office of Employee Assistance enough. I couldn’t believe how helpful they were to me and, separately, to my office when we needed them.

      • Moosita says:

        I second the OEA recommendation — they are wonderful. However, I hear you E: one’s options are extremely limited in a Member’s office in my experience as well, unless you have a great COS who isn’t part of the problem. Sexual harassment or other clear forms of illegal harassment are a different story. (They can be addressed formally through OEA or CAO.) But that douchebag coworker who “vocally and routinely belittles your work, your appearance or mocks you” et al. is a lot harder to deal with. I wish I had advice for E but the only thing that worked for me ultimately was changing offices, and making sure I landed in a high-functioning and professional one. Frankly, Hill offices that are NOT highly dysfunctional are just extremely rare, and that’s just part of working on the Hill. It’s populated with immature and inexperienced people with a lot of power, and it’s corrosive.

    • W says:

      Hey E,

      Careful on the Hill!! Careful on the Hill!!

      I actually would advise AGAINST taking a harassment issue to your COS right away if the issue is really serious, or if there’s any way it might eventually involve legal action. In some cases, the COS might be obligated to take certain actions as soon as something is reported, whether you want them to or not. That *could* end up having real consequences for you whether you stay or go, and it *could* end up becoming a public issue for your office no matter how discrete you are personally.

      I think there are counselors available somewhere through Employee Assistance. I would start there. (And keep in mind that even they might have reporting obligations.)

      If it’s a small thing, it may well be something your COS can smooth out easily. Just, better safe than sorry.

      * All of the above is based on grapevine and not personal experience.
      ** All of the above may have changed recently so check first.
      *** Still, definitely do check!

  2. Kate says:

    Thanks for posting about this, Belle! It’s definitely a serious issue- especially for women- and your advice was great!

  3. M says:

    E – you do have HR. There are actually some pretty strict rules for offices on the hill & just because some offices don’t have a professional HR person doesn’t mean you should be afraid of reporting them. There are resources available.

  4. Anna says:

    I think it’s important to not approach the coworker in the moment. People will get defensive, feel like they’re being put on the spot, and won’t be receptive, plus they’ll try to keep the joke going and call you a party pooper. It’d be best to pull them aside during a quiet time and have specific examples ready. If it happens again, you don’t laugh or engage, they’ll just need a look or say, “this is what I was talking about.”

    • Mary says:

      Yes, unless they make a comment on it, and then responding immediately is good. Belle mentioned people half-heartedly apologizing. That is a great time to say, “Now that you mention it, I find that to be offensive…”

    • Belle says:

      True. Better to come back later, esp. if there are people around. You don’t want to do this when there are others around.

  5. Just Another Anon says:

    I usually address an inappropriate comment right then and there in a serious way without sounding too harsh.
    For example, someone told a rape joke in the office. My response: “Ah, rape jokes, yes, they are never appropriate, you might wanna think about that the next time.”
    And then we move on. It works pretty well. But our office is also pretty good at speaking up (it’s the shutting up part that we can’t get right 😉 )

  6. M says:

    great advice, belle, and i would say that it also holds true when your boss is the one making off-color comments. for example, when kim jong il died, my boss came out to the admin area and started dancing around, miming that he was swatting away flames from burning his ass, and said “guess who i am.” i was appalled – doesn’t matter your politics; not appropriate in a workplace environment. i talked to him about it, he apologized for being inappropriate, and has done a better job of keeping his opinions to himself.

    • GingerR says:

      Maybe I’m not up on events like I should be, but that sounds idiotic. You did the guy a favor by objecting!

  7. JK says:

    While I’ve never been in this situation (luckily), I can definitely see myself reacting as you noted above— dismissing a half-hearted apology by saying “oh, it’s okay.” I think, as you mention, that you can NOT say it’s okay and not come off as being “bitchy” or stuck up. Any response said matter-of-factly in a way which is serious, but not accusatory or rude, would work!

  8. Joules says:

    I have been in a situation like this and I can assure you that it is always better to say something if you are uncomfortable. My company was extremely professional about it and made me feel very respected (even when my coworker didn’t).

    Style by Joules

  9. lady engineer says:

    I’d like advice on how to operate in similar environment where your older male coworkers are respectful but treat you more like their daughter than a peer. I know most of my coworkers do have daughters that are around my age, and their protectiveness was endearing when I first started, but I’ve been with this company 7 years and I feel like I shouldn’t be treated like a kid anymore.

    • Ginjury says:

      I think Ask A Manager has posted advice on dealing with this issue before. Go to her site and look around a bit. It’s pretty easy to search for things there.

  10. Julia S. says:

    It’s a dicey issue. You don’t want to appear sensitive, but if it’s way over the line, then you need to respond. I’ve been sexually harassed – twice – and I worked in a male-dominated industry where there were always comments and jokes. Early in my career I did nothing, because it was a different era, and if you rocked the boat, you paid the price. Now I will generally just not laugh at an off-color joke, or say something like “you know, that comment makes me a bit uncomfortable. I’d rather we not joke about it.” And then leave it at that. A continual problem, well, then you have to make a choice. Everything has implications, right or wrong. Is it worth staking your job & career on? Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes its no.

    As far as coworkers treating you like a daughter, one of the things you can change is your demeanor, dress, and style. Do you act and look like a professional? I’d bet there’s something you can do to be more assertive. Often just stepping up your dress helps because it changes how you approach things. I wear a suit to work every day because it helps me get into the role of an executive – and because I’m dressing the part I want to be.

  11. GingerR says:

    It’s hard if you’re one of a few women because you’ll often be made to feel like you’re not tough or too-sensitive. Don’t let anybody push that 80s-era attitude off on you!

    I agree that describing the talk as harassment/abuse is probably going to make the HR/supervisor unhappy as it will kick off a lot of bureaucracy that won’t do your career any good. I’d start by objecting to the “rude” talk that surrounds you and see if that won’t move the tone of the office back to a more professional level.

  12. K says:

    My dad deals with those situations by saying “well that was inappropriate” and changes the subject; he also makes a point to change the subject when his coworkers are gossiping. The result of all this is that his coworkers know you don’t gossip or make off color remarks around M. And since they know he doesn’t gossip, they’ll come ask for his advice.

    Now, granted, some of his coworkers’ willingness to do this could be because he’s a male and doesn’t have to worry about being perceived as an “overly sensitive woman.” My industry is male-dominated, as I’m sure is true for most of the ladies here, but I’ve found that mimicking his approach works well. I’ve met my dad’s coworkers and it’s clear they respect him, even if he isn’t senior to them, and I want to foster that in my career. It’s never come down to it, but I’d like to think I’d hold my ground against inappropriate behavior, even if it came down to losing my job. I wholeheartedly agree with what others have said here- if we want to change things, we can’t just ignore it.

  13. Amanda says:

    I use body language to convey if I’m uncomfortable with a joke. I work with a lot of men and they can have crude humor from time to time. Typically, I can stomach it and sometimes I even get a chuckle, but once in a while it is taken too far.
    These guys are not jerks, they have families and wives/girlfriends/daughters so when my body language goes from smiling and looking them in the eye, to a quizzical eyebrow raise and pressed lips,(I sound like my mother, eekk!) they are able to quickly change the pace to something more appropriate without embarrassment for either of us.

    This seems really passive but it works for me because I am able to participate in relaxed conversation with my male co-workers but we maintain awareness of each others level of comfort.

  14. Pancakes says:

    “As more offices try to build morale by relaxing the rigid standards of professional decorum, lines get crossed and people start letting their hair down. Eventually they start talking to their co-workers the way they talk to their friends over drinks.”

    I actually don’t see this as a problem. In terms of harassment or truly appalling jokes (such as rape, racial, disability, etc. jokes), yes, totally a problem. But in terms of talking to your coworkers like friends—I don’t see that as a problem.

    At my office, granted we are a more casual workplace since we’re in a creative field, we absolutely consider coworkers as good friends and it’s not unusual for us to have profanity and jokes to be thrown around. Would we try to curb ourselves if a new coworker was uncomfortable with it? Yes. But as long as you respect your boss and respect your peers, having a friendly relationship with them is not necessarily a bad thing.

  15. kb says:

    I agree with Belle’s advice of keeping a written record of situations that arise –especially if one she has already spoken to the person making the jokes/comments and sees no change in behavior.
    I know someone who was subjected to all sorts of sexually and racially inappropriate comments by a supervisor in the workplace. This person kept a written record of the events and who else was present when the comments were made. Another coworker made an official complaint and my friend was contacted by an investigator even though she was no longer with the company. She was able to provide the investigator with detailed instances where the supervisor had made very off color and offensive remarks and it served to corroborate many of the complaints already made.

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