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Thursday, May 13, 2010

coworker keeps staring at my chest

Employees hitting each other, a coworker wetting his pants, and now this -- is it just me or have the letters really taken a more bawdy turn around here lately? In any case...

A reader writes:

I just started a fantastic job working as a legal assistant to General Counsel for a small (60 employee) company. I absolutely love my work, my boss (who is possibly the coolest attorney I know) and most of my coworkers. I say most of because one of them is causing me a bit of discomfort, and I'm not sure what to do about it.

I'll say this in the most delicate of terms: I am a fairly large-breasted woman. I cover them appropriately during the workday, but it's not always as effective as I'd like it to be, and I understand that even in the most professional of environments, sometimes, people will look. It happens, and I don't take offense to it in most cases, because in most cases, it's generally pretty rare. But there is one particular employee, a manager who most of the higher ups like, including my boss. In fact, my boss plays poker with him - hence why I can't exactly talk to my boss about this particular situation.

This employee, we'll call him John, REALLY likes to stare at the chests of every young woman in the office, myself included. And when I say stare, I mean full-on, lower-your-eyes-and-even-your-head, talk-to-the-chest STARE. If it were just once in a while, again, I wouldn't really think much of it, but it's very difficult to work with this manager (which in my position is a frequent occurrence) when you can feel him trying to get a glimpse down your shirt. It really is VERY obvious, and it makes most of the ladies extremely uncomfortable. I'm not a very easily-offended person, and I suppose I'm not even so much offended here as just... squicked out.

I don't want to take it to HR, because that's a bit extreme for what I'm almost sure he doesn't realize he is doing. In addition, I don't know that my boss is the person to talk to either, given his friendship with the manager and my general uneasiness with going "higher up" at this point. Do you have a recommendation of how to handle this situation at a more personal level, short of wearing turtlenecks all year long?

Men, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think guys who do this are generally oblivious.

There are all kinds of options to clue him in, from body language (pointedly crossing your arms over your chest), to worriedly looking down and asking if you have something on your shirt, to saying something direct ("my eyes are up here"). Hell, you could even send him an anonymous note telling him that many women in the office have noticed him staring at their chests and this is his chance to stop it before someone complains. 

One other option: Are there any women at his level or higher in your office? Discreetly mentioning it to one of them and asking if they can handle it without making a big deal about it is an option too.

And you should keep in mind that HR is of course an option as well, although I'd share your instinct to try to handle it directly first.

Whatever option you choose, you should say or do something, because it's making you and others uncomfortable. 

What do others think?

And I'll promise we'll get back to the more staid letters from here on out.


Steve Foerster said...

I'm not the world's most sensitive guy, but I know better than to talk to a woman's breasts, and I'll bet this guy does too. I expect that since it's a relationship with unequal power, he thinks he doesn't have to keep his eyes to himself.

Still, I can understand why someone wouldn't want to go to HR as a first resort. It's like when your neighbors are making too much noise at night -- it's nicer to talk to them first rather than call the cops.

But the letter writer evidently believes that her place of employment is one where subtle reprisals are possible, or so I gather from her reluctance to speak with her own supervisor. Perhaps, then, it's better for her to clue HR in so that there's a record of her complaint before any "unrelated" complaints about her can surface after she talks to him discreetly about it.

Anonymous said...

I would, and have, said loudly enough for others to hear: HEY, MY FACE IS UP HERE!

And then everyone turned to stare at the perv who was ogling my chest. He never did it again, but if he had, THEN I would have gone to HR.

In this day and age I do not buy that anyone doesn't realize what they are doing or that it is wrong. There's too much time spent in schools and in the media about sexual harassment for there to be any confusion about this matter.

Laura Y. said...

From the way the OP describes the relationships involved, I'd say her boss is actually the *best* person to talk to (given that she doesn't want to make it an HR matter). Make an exasperated "off-hand" remark after John walks by: "Dude, I wish John would keep his eyes above the neckline. The other girls and I get so squicked out when he ogles." Your boss will either ask you to explain further or let it drop...but in this day and age I'd lay even money that either way, the boss mentions to John over their next poker game that his behavior is a sexual harassment complaint waiting to happen.

Sabrina said...

"Keep looking, buddy, I could use the settlement money."

nuqotw said...

I have discovered that often a direct remark can be made less potentially confrontational by giving the person to whom you are speaking a one time out, along the lines of "I'm sure you don't realize that I feel uncomfortable, but I feel like you are looking at my body rather than making eye contact we talk. I would appreciate it if we could maintain eye contact in future conversations."

A remark like this one gives the manager an opportunity to hear you without feeling like he has to defend himself against ogling / harassment charges. Also, it makes it clear that you *do* feel uncomfortable, which is one of the criteria for harassment. The implication is now that the manager knows that chest-ogling squicks you out, he will of course cease and desist, and that the "I had no idea" defense is now moot.

Good luck!

Charles said...

"Men, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think guys who do this are generally oblivious."

Sorry, AAM; But, I disagree with you on this. Most guys who do this in such an obvious fashion are on a power trip. (every straight guy does look, just not obviously. sorry ladies)

I think the best option is to say something subtle as AAM suggested "Is there something on my shirt?"

To say something stronger without talking it over with the direct boss first would not be wise. Give your direct boss the courtesy of talking to him first; and get his feedback as to the best way to approach this issue.

And lastly, I would never, NEVER, suggest leaving an anonymous note for anything. Never! It is really a coward's way out of dealing with an issue. It leaves the recipient suspecting everyone; and who knows who will be his target of frustration. Do you want to be the catalyst for someone else getting fired? (AAM, I cannot believe that you would even suggest such a thing!)

Veralidaine said...

Does this guy make strong eye contact with men, or does he look at something else when talking to them, too? He could be really uncomfortable with eye contact and not aware he's putting himself in a worse position by avoiding it.

If you think he has trouble with eye contact with everyone, not just women, you might approach someone close to him to clue him in that he's making women uncomfortable by looking at their chests. Have them suggest that he should look at their noses instead--it's less intimidating than eye contact, yet inoffensive.

(I've worked with several people who are on the Autism spectrum and don't choose to share that information with people they aren't terribly close to, and the looking at noses tip comes from an Aspie who faced a similar problem at work until he started staring at noses instead. I'm not trying to diagnose the coworker at all, just saying he might not like eye contact.)

Anonymous said...

Why are you all blaming the guy? Do you know what it feels like working with a women who opens her breasts and shakes them in front of your nose while having a pretty business conversation?! If you read the letter once again you can't miss this: "I cover them appropriately during the workday, but it's not always as effective as I'd like it to be"?! What do you mean? Like there is no possibilty to cover them effectively? Does she live in a country where the textile industry gave up to the crisis?! My advise: cover your beasts EFFECTIVELY and he will not STARE anymore. As easy as that! Yes, and for those angry commenters who are going to object, effectively doesn't mean a paranja, just a normal dress with a cleavage corresponding to the fairly large size of her breasts.

Reva said...

Here's the thing. You could tell him and he could do what happened to me which would be say he didn't care it made you uncomfortable, in which case you either go to HR or give your boss an ultimatum that if he doesn't stop it you will go to HR. I chose the latter and never heard another word. Trust me, your boss has more to lose than you think. My boss & this dude were buddy buddy and I didn't care. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

First, quit making excuses for the guy. You point out how obvious it is, that he behaves that way to every young woman in the office, but you then state that you don't want to make waves because, "that's a bit extreme for what I'm almost sure he doesn't realize he is doing." Trust me, he realizes it and he thinks he can keep getting away with it.

Give him a direct notification such as the one nuqotw suggested. Put him on notice that you will no longer tolerate his behavior, and make it clear that he is doing something wrong. Simple is best: "John, I am uncomfortable that you are staring at my blouse. Please keep your eyes on mine while we are talking."

Use the boss connection, and let your boss know in a quick memo: I spoke with John a few minutes ago in the hall about his staring behavior, how it made me uncomfortable, and asked him to stop. I wanted to let you know firsthand, just in case you hear it from him as well.

Then it's on-record, immediately after the fact, and if your boss is as cool as you say, it stops there.

Anonymous said...

I agree with those who say that men who do this are *not* clueless; they want to look at breasts and continue to do so _because no woman has corrected them so far_. As long as AAM and others keep telling women to just "play nice", men like this will continue to harrass women because no one stopped them. He gets one verbal warning, administered by the OP _in front of_ an HR rep or supervisor, and if he EVER does it again it's lawsuit time.

Anonymous said...

AAM, men who act like that are not just oblivious. Guys like the one in this letter are either rude and self-centered in general and have no manners at all for anyone, or they legitimately don't care that women aren't objects placed on this earth purely to entertain them. Sometimes it's both.

Anonymous said...

Most of the suggestions here are guaranteed to make an enemy out of the guy. That's all you need!

I would suggest going to him and ask if you could schedule some time to talk to him about "a potential legal issue that could impact the office and perhaps him personally". Schedule a time when you can both talk. Make sure it is private, because you do NOT want to embarrass him.

When you meet with him, keep to the facts. "For the last 3 weeks I noticed that when I talk to you, you seem to be staring at my chest. I talked to the other women in the office, and they concur that they have experienced the same thing. I am concerned that this could create an embarrassing situation. These actions could be considered as creating a hostile work environment. It could negatively impact your career. I wanted to tell you about this, because I am concerned for you and this office. I would like to work with you so this doesn't continue to happen."

Now he may be shocked, or angry, or bluster. He may tell you you are crazy. Continue to reiterate to him that you are NOT out to get him, but that the situation as it stands is a problem - the other women feel uncomforable too. Let him know that you want to work with him to solve the problem, but that you can not accept what has been going on. Tell him if it doesn't stop, you will feel obligated to report it to your supervisor in order to protect the company.

Oh, and document, document, document. Just in case.

But the point is, be respectful, and treat this as a mutual problem solving session. You could end up as someone he trusts, because you came to him about a problem in a respectful manner.

jmkenrick said...

@Anon from May 14, 2010 9:10 AM

It's possible you're trolling, because, frankly, that's kind of a rude response, but if not...

As a woman (with, you know, breasts,) I interpreted this statement:

"I cover them appropriately during the workday, but it's not always as effective as I'd like it to be"

differently than you. That is to say, for those woman who are over a certain cup size, even in the world's dowdiest sweater, their curves can still be quite obvious.

You don't appear to be a woman, so believe me when I say that some men will ogle a loose-fitting turtleneck. I don't get from the letter that this is an issue of inappropriate dress, and frankly, even if it were, that doesn't excuse any poor behavior on the part of a man.

Emily said...

I have experience with the wandering eyes. I am literally the last person on the planet to defend this particular coworker on any front, but even I believe that he truly didn't realize he was doing it.

His real problem was not the perverted nature of his habitual stare, but that he never listened to a word I said, and when his attention drifted, so did his gaze. This is true no matter who is speaking; if it was our team member—another man—he'd gaze into the pattern on the other guy's shirt or tie as though it were a Magic Eye poster. I was the first woman to work directly with two men in four years, and one of only two or three women in the surrounding area, so I don't think anyone else had really had occasion to call him on his bad staring habit (never mind his poor attention span!) By the time I joined the group, the habit was fully entrenched.

The most successful tactic was to wait for his eyes to wander while I was speaking, and then stop abruptly in the middle of my own thought and duck down to catch his eyes while I said some variation of, "I'm sorry, is this a bad time? You seem a bit distracted." The interruption got his attention (especially if it was during a group meeting) and he adjusted his behavior pretty quickly. He *still* has a limited attention span, no matter who is talking, but he gazes out the window instead of at my chest.

Anon from May 14, 2010 9:10 AM said...


With no intention to be rude at all, however, I wrote what I think about this situation. The way I see the "cover them" statement is about covering her skin (it's hard to disagree that uncovered skin would attract much more attention than the curves only). Hence, if "not always as effective as I'd like it to be" still means her appearance is in a way provocative, it's not only the guy's fault. Of course I don't mean she has to change her dressing style, however, I really appreciate people and especially women dressing differently at work and after work. Which is mostly the case, but not always, unfortunately.

I believe we would both agree on the matter, however we still differently interpret the "covering" statement. Maybe you are right since as a man (with, you know, no breasts), for me covering and uncovering means skin or no skin.

And yes, I agree that the guy is not right anyway. Since he seems to have nice perspectives (career-wise) in this organisation and putting all at (real) risk for the sake of staring at whatever big or nice there are is at least stupid:)

Karyn said...

Let me respond to @Anon from May 14:

What I meant by that statement is that while I CONSISTENTLY layer my clothing (and actually usually wear a heavy sweater in the office since it's frigid 99% of the time), it's not an issue of SKIN - it's an issue of, well, I have large breasts and they are noticeable no matter what I'm wearing. It's just that sometimes, if the sweater is lighter or the material less bulky, it's more noticeable than, say, during the winter when I wear heavy layered turtlenecks.

Furthermore, other women who are my age dress similarly to myself, and even though they are not as "blessed" as I in that department, have also had their breasts stared at. It's not a matter of skin, as I said. It's just a matter of them being THERE at all.

I'm sorry to have caused confusion with the "it's not as effective as I'd like it to be" comment. I have been complimented by numerous coworkers (and even the HR manager herself) for my professional level of dress. Even on "dress down" days, I'm wearing a t-shirt and jeans, not something I'd wear to Vegas.

As to my course of action - I took the direct approach. I went to his office, closed the door, and said, "I really don't know how to bring this up, but because I think you're someone who would rather have someone be honest and forthcoming, here it is: I've gotten the impression during our conversations that you seem to be somewhat distracted by my chest. I believe you don't mean to be offensive, and I certainly am not accusing you of sexual harassment, but I wanted you to be aware of my impression for the future."

He took it surprisingly well; he was obviously a bit embarrassed but as I suspected, he didn't really seem to know he was doing it. I talked to him later in the week and he actually seemed to be making a concerted effort to look me in the eye!

Thanks everyone, for your advice! :) It was much appreciated and useful.

Anonymous said...

Anon May 14: thing is, it would be still the guy's fault, because we're talking voluntary muscular control here. The fact that something surprising and extremely interesting is on display doesn't mean that we lose control of the direction of our gaze. What you're talking about is really interpreting the woman's dress as *permission* to stare--and that's a really bad idea in a workplace.

Anon from May 14, 2010 9:10 AM said...


Sorry for misunderstanding the covering issue, you see, while I understood what was written there, jmkenrick understood what was really meant by you:)

I certainly appreciate your sense of humour ("not as blessed") but more your way of solving the problem. Well done indeed. No conflicts and the result is there. Great!

@Anonymous from May 15 09:52 PM:

I don't interpret the woman's dress as "permission", at least in a workplace. But we all cover parts we don't want to be seen and open those we want to show. Which is perfectly ok in Vegas, but not at work. That was my point. It's almost impossible to keep staring into your colleague's eyes while having a conversation. And I believe it is not less embarrassing either. Usually we don't pay attention to this unless it becomes excessive and again, I respect the way Karyn has dealt with the situation.

Unknown said...

You should quite simply state, "I prefer people look me in the eye when I speak to them." If the behavior continues, speak to your supervisor. "I have asked ____, to not look at my chest when he speaks to me. He continues to do so. I am uncomfortable." If the supervisor fails to take action, go to HR. If you state your discomfort and there is no change. It is sexual harassment.

Anonymous said...

I like the various suggestions listed and have seen the "Do I have something on my shirt?" used effectively. I had to do it with a female VP who would look people up and down while talking. I knew this was some kind of quirk, because she did it to everyone, male and female. A nervous habit, I believe.
I asked her one day if my slip was showing and made like I was looking down at my skirt. She said No, why? I replied that she was looking down at me funny so I assumed something was wrong with my skirt. Honestly, she never did it again.
HR is not always the answer. It depends on good of an HR team you have, and not all HR people are good, just like any other management person. I've seen it backfire when the offending person is buds with HR. What you say gets twisted and somehow blamed on your, or totally ignored. I've seen people get told, "I've known John for 10 years and I know he wouldn't do something like that."

I like the idea of finding a female higher-up that will be able to present their case to the higher-up men. That can work well too.

Anonymous said...

As long as a woman is dressed appropriately for work it is inappropriate to stare. Anything else would not really be fair as men don't run around exposed.

Unknown said...

There are power and hegemony issues at work here as well. Men can control themselves, they've just never really needed to because of consequences for acting like sexist jerks until relatively recently.

I think it's a caring gesture to want to be respectful, and I think keeping professional is appropriate. But he's disrespectful and assumptive of his "right" to behave as though women are obviously put here for his viewing pleasure. Forget that.

Take care of business, and don't let him get away with it. And, given the nature of offices, direct first is a much more effective initial approach.

Anonymous said...

Tell the guy to stop looking at your boobs -- how would he like it if you stared at his crotch? Not so much. So if you tell him that, he won't look as much.