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Sunday, August 15, 2010

my coworker has a lecherous and creepy interest in our colleague

A reader writes:

I work with a man who has an inappropriate infatuation with a much younger, married co-worker. He is married with a daughter about the same age as this woman (mid 20's). I have seen him demonstrate obsessive behavior toward her: leering, taking her picture with his cell phone, outward anger/jealousy toward anyone else who interacts with her. He pretends to be friendly to her, but makes lewd remarks behind her back about her body. He seems to have little self control and is very determined to pursue her.

At this point, I feel like talking to her and giving her a heads up that this guy's interest in her is anything but innocent. I feel like I am watching a slow-moving train wreck, and do not want to have to bear witness to this. I do believe that this is a one way obsession, and that the woman may be naive to this man's true intentions. Any insight would be appreciated.

What you described is unnerving, although it's worth noting that we don't actually know whether the woman might in fact return his interest, married or not. Either way, though, the lewd remarks behind her back and the aggression toward others who interact with her are alarming -- and those are also the two elements that indicate to me that you should say something. Otherwise we might just have a douchey guy with an inappropriate crush, but those elements elevate it to objectively creepy.

(By the way, I can't tell if the cell phone pictures are being taken with her knowledge/cooperation; obviously, if they're not, that's highly creepy element #3. Beyond creepy, in fact.)

I think the right thing to do in this situation is to mention to her what you've seen, but stick to the facts. Rather than telling her that he's determined to pursue her and has little self-control -- which I don't think you can actually know -- tell her what you do know for sure: He makes inappropriate remarks about her when she's not around and sometimes becomes hostile when others talk to her. And if she doesn't know about the photo-taking, you absolutely must mention that too, as it's a huge violation. 

From there, it's up to her to decide how she wants to handle this. If she seems freaked out but uncertain what her options are, suggest that she speak to her manager and/or HR. Or, it's possible that she won't care or will choose not to discuss her reaction with you, in which case this probably needs to become none of your business, unless you see it escalate to new worrrisome behaviors (in which case you should fill her in again).

However, there's one piece that will remain your business regardless of how this plays out, and that's what the guy says in front of you. If he's making inappropriate remarks about her (or anyone), speak up! Tell him it's inappropriate for the office, disrespectful toward her, and something you don't want to hear again.

I'll also add this: If your gut is sending you warning signs that this guy isn't just a lech but is also potentially dangerous in some way, read The Gift of Fear and encourage your colleague to also. It gives really helpful advice on knowing when someone is just kind of a jerk or socially inept versus when you should be more worried. (Actually, everyone should read this.)

What do others think?


Anonymous said...

I'd be afraid for her safety. If this is how he is now, I'd hate to know how he would react if she rejected him. The lewd remarks behind her back could worsen or he could hurt her. I hope she's not completely oblivious to what's going on. I commend the OP for being alarmed and seeking the proper way to go about the situation.

Anonymous said...

I do think OP should consider the possibility that the girl in question does not object to the man's behavior. Some girls do get a thrill out of this kind of thing.

I agree with AAM--OP should say something since she may not be aware of some of the things he is doing when she is not around. Just don't have the expectation that the girl will react in a particular way.

I also think the first step is to confront the behavior, before going to HR. I was in a similar situation years ago and was practically dragged to HR to file a written complaint before I'd even had a chance to tell the guy his behavior was bothering me. I think he was just socially awkward and didn't realize the affect of his actions. I still wish I hadn't let myself be coerced into a more extreme reaction than I felt was necessary.

Anonymous said...

Do other coworkers see the same creepy behavior? Is there any way that more than one person can approach her? I would just be concerned with creepy guy going after the OP if he were to find out. There's strength in numbers.

Anonymous said...

I <3 AAM... thank you for recommending The Gift of Fear. Also her advice to state the facts and leave the decision of what to do with the woman in question is spot on.

Also, if he is making *lewd* as opposed to simply *rude* remarks behind the young woman's back but in front of the letter writer she would potentially have her own HR complaint to bring to HR (after she tells him to knock it off of course)

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 3:08 PM- The only people who think that women get a "thrill" out of having a lecherous older co-worker talk about them behind their backs are the same people that excuse sexual assault as just "boys being boys" or try to determine if a woman "deserved it" based on what she was wearing/how she was acting. Whether or not the woman in questions actually likes it, it's still very work inappropriate and crosses a lot of lines.

Anonymous said...

Of course there are some situations where some woman (or men) would enjoy the attention. Who cares that the guy is older?

I'm not saying that's what's going on here. But let's not pretend women are asexual beings - that's the real anti-feminist stance.

Charles said...

Before bringing it HR's attention try two simple comments:

1) When he says something in front of you, simply say, "that's inappropriate" or something to that effect.

2) Just say to her, "BTW, are you aware that he says this, etc."

Years ago, in one place where I worked we had a male co-worker who used to come up behind women to sniff their hair. (yes, sniff their hair! There are a lot of "crazies" in the world). I used the above two comments and that seemed to stop it. I don't know if it will work in the OP's situation; but it might be worth a try.

Another HR Person said...

Definitely bring this to her attention. Even if she knows about it and likes it (which I doubt, but it's a possibility) this puts her on notice that other people see what's going on and gives her an opportunity to address it. If she doesn't know about it, then she needs to.

I also love the book The Gift of Fear. I think it should almost be mandatory reading for high school students.

Anonymous said...

A hostile work environment is not just between the two individuals involved. If he is making other employees uncomfortable with his comments and actions toward a co-worker those employees have the right to expect the behavior to stop, whether that is due to them saying something to him, his manager, or HR. Sexual harassment doesn’t just affect the individual directly being harassment; it also affects those around them who are also subjected to the inappropriate behavior. Every employee has the right to work in a hostility free environment and should not be subjected to this inappropriate behavior.